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Vaccine backlash: Calgary oil giant facing dozens of lawsuits from former employees over COVID-19 shot

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He began as a mechanic, eventually being promoted to foreman. Rick Ducharme spent the last 15 years working for oil and gas giant Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

He made roughly $150,000 a year, plus benefits and bonuses.

"I loved it," says the 55-year-old, who lives in Bonnyville, Alta., a community north of Edmonton where the majority of the people make their living from CNRL, either directly or indirectly.

"It was very challenging, very fast paced, (there were) good people to work with and it was close to home, I got home every night, it was a great job."

But Ducharme no longer has that job after he was cut loose by the company because he refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

He's now suing CNRL for wrongful dismissal, as are dozens of other former employees who lost their livelihoods for the same reason.

"I feel that it's beyond immoral what they've done," says Ducharme, "what they've done is cruel, they've punished a lot of people they should not have punished, there is a lot of people who are hurting from this and I wish they would've rethought their approach to this."

CNRL is a massive oil producer, with more than 9,000 employees around the world and its value just surpassed  $100 billion for the first time.

But, it's also facing a revolt from staff who wouldn't get vaccinated. Many are suing for lost wages and benefits, in some cases demanding well over $1 million each, reflecting the high salaries common in the industry.

Legal experts say the energy sector is only one area seeing potential litigation from employees who refused to get their shots.

"Ultimately, it comes down to how the courts are going to view their vaccine mandates in the future," says Sarah Coderre, with Bow River Employment Law. "It's the wild west so to speak, we don't really know how the courts will view these things in the future or how they're starting to look at these things."

CNRL refused to be interviewed or this story but former employees tell CTV News it recently dropped its vaccine mandate for staff and is offering jobs back to people who lost them, at the same wages with possible bonuses, though no back pay is being offered for the time away due to the vaccine requirement.

Coderre says lawsuits such as this could drag through the courts for up to five years, eating up a lot of time and money.

"It all comes down to risk management in the vast majority of cases," she says. "It's got to be in both parties, employer and employees interest, to resolve the matter before trial. Cases like this in particular are risky for both sides, there are strong public policy arguments that can be made on both sides of the case why it was a wrongful dismissal or a justified termination."

Ducharme says he was offered his job back but won't take it. He says he no longer trusts the company and will find work elsewhere.

"I have my skill set that they can't take away, and I have my ambitions that they can't take away and I will find a way to proceed," he says.

Ducharme doesn't appear to be alone in his litigation. Even though CNRL began offering jobs back to people in March, several more wrongful dismissal lawsuits against the company have been filed since then.

None of the allegations in the lawsuits have been tested in court.

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