When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Natalie Seal was hailed as a hero as she worked on the front lines. But after she chose not to disclose her vaccination status to the City of Windsor, Ont., Seal said she felt “discarded.”
Seal, who was a Windsor firefighter for more than 15 years, is one of 20 former City of Windsor workers suing the corporation after being fired for not complying with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine policy. In recent months, vaccine mandates enforced by employers have faced criticism, been suspended and struck down across various industries.
The lawsuit, filed on Aug. 24, claims that the City of Windsor breached people’s constitutional rights and that it acted outside of its authority.
“It stings, absolutely, and it not just stings the pocket, it stings right down to the soul,” Seal told CBC News about being fired.
“I was good enough to work for the City of Windsor for almost two years of the pandemic, and then to be just discarded in the beginning of 2022 was heartbreaking.”
The city policy, dated last September, says people who are fully vaccinated have a far lower chance of getting seriously ill from the virus, and that they “help stop the spread.”
In an email, City of Windsor spokesperson Jason Moore said they don’t comment on individual cases, “especially where litigation is involved.” But he said that the city has treated all of its workers the same when it comes to enforcing the policy.
In January, the city reported that 104 employees were fired over their refusal to get vaccinated or disclose their status. Of those, 43 were full-time staff and 61 were temporary part-time.
Seal did not disclose her vaccination status with CBC News and said she refuses to do so as she has a right to medical privacy.
“I feel like freedom of choice is the very essence of what it is to be Canadian. It’s the very spirit of what the Canadian constitution was founded on,” she said.
WATCH: Seal talks about why she didn’t disclose her vaccine status
“We can’t just discard our human rights and freedoms when something comes along.”
But the decision to not disclose cost her her career and a lot of stress, she said. Seal was the sole income earner for her family of two kids under the age of 10 and her husband, who home-schooled their children.
“I stand by my decision. I feel like I did what was right for me,” she said.
“No amount of shame, guilt or coercion by the City of Windsor was ever going to break who I am as a person or what I believe, nor do I think any corporation or employer should be able to do that.”
Firefighters’ union pushing back
According to the Windsor Professional Firefighters’ Association, the city fired four firefighters for not complying with the policy. It said the union is seeking arbitration on this, but that the earliest date is next year.
Kris Matton, president of the Windsor Professional Firefighters’ Association, said the union doesn’t agree with the city’s policy and filed seven grievances and two letters of protest.
“It was a terrible time and I have total empathy and sympathy for our members,” Matton said, adding that whenever they deal with vulnerable groups in the community, they wear personal protective equipment.
“If you’re worried about these four [firefighters] that much, OK, bring them back and test them,” he said.
Police officer policy suspended
Matton also called it “discriminatory” that Windsor police are able to follow a different policy than firefighters.
In July, police officers who were unvaccinated or didn’t disclose their status were allowed to come back to work after the Windsor Police Service Board suspended its vaccine policy.
In an email, the City of Windsor said that people employed by other public sector entities might have different policies in place, but that’s the result of different workplaces and employers.
It said the policy was approved to ensure community safety, and that administration continues to “review best practices.”
CBC News asked the Ministry of Health and Premier Doug Ford’s office about why the government didn’t enforce a consistent policy for front-line workers across the province. Neither have responded.
Toronto firefighters reinstated
In Toronto, a similar battle unfolded that sided with the firefighters.
At the end of August, an arbitrator ruled that while the City of Toronto policy was “valuable,” the city didn’t reasonably enforce it. The ruling also said people shouldn’t have been immediately fired. The firefighters’ lawyer is working with the employer on the specifics of returning to work.
The Windsor group wants the city to declare that suspending or terminating the employees was unconstitutional. It also wants the city to repeal vaccination as a condition of employment, and to pay general damages of $250,000 per plaintiff, aggravated damages of $50,000 per plaintiff for “mental distress,” and punitive damages of $1,000 per employee per day since March 1, 2022.
The Windsor group’s lawyer, Courtney Betty, told CBC News that the Toronto case sets a precedent for similar cases that are in arbitration.
“We are very pleased with that precedent and the [rationality] and the logic is certainly along the same line that we have carved out our claim as well,” he said, adding that this lawsuit takes it a step further by looking at how people’s rights and freedoms were breached.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Betty said he’s heard from City of Windsor lawyers who plan to go before a judge and push for the case to be dismissed.
According to Betty, more people have come forward since the lawsuit was filed. He anticipates that by the end of it, there will be 30 plaintiffs involved.
Other city workers already part of the lawsuit include early childhood education workers, data analysts, a city forester and manager of forestry and natural areas, multiple Enwin employees and a Huron Lodge personal support worker.
These staff members were put on unpaid leave in November 2021 and terminations began in January, according to the group’s statement of claim.