B.C.'s front-line grocery workers under 18 want priority vaccines too

People who work in grocery stores in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions now qualify for early vaccination, but only if they are 18 or older, or will turn 18 sometime this calendar year.

That leaves thousands of younger teenage workers, including 17-year-old Elliot who works at Save-On Foods in Tsawwassen, asking why they are being left out.

“A lot of my colleagues are also in high school, and some of them are even younger than me. So I assumed when grocery store workers would be vaccinated, that it would be all of them, not just the adults of 18 plus,” he said.

His mother, Vanessa Moar, doesn’t understand why her son and other young grocery store workers can’t receive the Pfizer shot, which is now approved for people as young as 12.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

“I think it’s just an oversight and they say, ‘Oh, actually it’s all grocery store workers.’ There will be none under 12, we’ll be fine, so anyone who works in a grocery store should be able to be vaccinated."

When asked why younger grocery workers aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she is having ongoing discussions about how to factor 12 to 17 year olds into the program, and said current decisions to give the vaccine to those 18 and up are based on the fact that older populations are at higher risk.

“The age based program is based on risk and, yes, we are moving down that age cohort as quickly as we can,” she said.

“We will have more information on where 12 to 17 year olds fit in that program in the coming days.”

A union that represents thousands of grocery store workers in B.C., UFCW Local 247, also wants the vaccination age limit removed.

“I could understand if the vaccines weren’t approved for people under 18. But once they’re approved for people 12 and up, I think all grocery workers should be entitled to the same treatment and the same protection in a safe workplace," said UFCW spokesperson Charles Pratt.

He says the industry offers a first job for many teenagers, and they do the same risky, front-line work as their older colleagues.

“If you look at the nature of the work they perform in stores, they quite often fill very front-line service positions: cashier, deli counters, things of that nature. So they are directly involved with face-to-face interactions with the customers,” Pratt said.

“It just makes no sense that they would be vaccinated and we are not, even through we are doing the same job,” said Elliot.

In the meantime, Elliot will continue to work as a cashier alongside his older, vaccinated colleagues. And his mom will continue to worry, adding “I will feel so much better when he’s vaccinated as well.”