By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Chatham-Kent firefighters who remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 will continue to have pay for testing to stay on the job.
A motion by East Kent Coun. Steve Pinsonneault recently that would see out-of-pocket testing costs covered by the province’s Safe Restart Fund, or from other reserves, was defeated by Chatham-Kent council 14-4.
Pinsonneault pointed out that firefighters are trained as part of the tiered medical response and shouldn’t be forced to pay.
“They’re expected to pay $45 (per test) two or three times a week in order to fight fires,” Pinsonneault said. “Honestly, this is a kick in the teeth,” he noted, adding there are presently 18 volunteer firefighters out of 284 who have opted out of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
“That’s their choice not to but we’re pulling them out of the tiered medical response part,” he said, noting he doesn’t see it as a lot of money.
There are also two full-time firefighters who have declined the shot.
Pinsonneault stressed volunteer firefighters aren’t in it for the cash.
“You can make a lot more money in a lot easier ways,” Pinsonneault told council prior to the vote. “They choose to serve their communities.”
With the exception of leadership positions, Pinsonneault, himself a volunteer firefighter in Thamesville, said volunteers make around $5,000 annually.
Tiered medical response was brought in to help ease the burden on EMS, Pinsonneault explained, to help cover off the vast area of the municipality.
Council learned the costs of tests for EMS staff who chose not to vaccinate is directly covered through the Ministry of Health.
Council also heard from administration that changing the rules for firefighters would violate the municipality’s vaccine policy.
Acting Chief Human Resources Officer Marianne Fenton said the motion would mean firefighters would be treated differently than other staff and volunteers, adding the policy was “designed to be fair” across the board.
Half of the employees currently choosing not to vaccinate against COVID-19 are in fire services, Fenton noted, adding the policy will kept in place until it can be safely removed.
Chatham-Kent brought in the vaccine verification and testing policy for its 1,400 employees and volunteers in October, providing the option that unvaccinated employees must conduct the tests on their own time and pay with their own money.
Chief Financial Officer Gord Quinton said the Safe Restart Fund is vague, relating to costs incurred by municipalities by COVID-19 in 2021, but he doubts the funding can be carried forward to pay for expenses in 2022.