By: Christian Carlo D’Ambrosi
Initial publication: June 17th, 2020
We all want to be safe. And although safety is something that we expect even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, that doesn’t mean that employers don’t try to skirt around the rules. After all, despite Ontario being the province with the most active cases only after Quebec (which was a province that, unfortunately, did very little in regards to quarantine measures), time and time again we see employers not taking the threat of contracting COVID-19 very seriously. So today, we’ll be answering three very simple questions: what are Ontario’s employers required to do to protect employees against COVID-19, who out there is actively ignoring the rules, and what can be done to stop non-compliance?
Now, the guidelines as to what Ontario employers are mandated to do are pretty simple. In essence, each workplace is required to make and share a safety plan with employees that has a few main features. These include, but are not limited to:
- screening workers
- supporting people with symptoms to self-isolate
- ensuring people maintain a physical distance of 2 metres or more
- disinfecting surfaces and objects
- supporting hand hygiene, particularly handwashing
- reminding workers about good cough and sneeze etiquette and to avoid touching their face
- working with the local public health unit if any workers have COVID-19 or are exposed to someone with COVID-19
While this may seem easy enough, the issue with the safety plans that encompass these regulations is that they are not entirely enforceable. After all, employers are currently not required to send these plans to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development for review or comment. To make matters worse, although non-essential workers are legally allowed to not come into work if they feel unsafe without being at risk for discipline or termination, they do not have to get paid for their time off. This is further complicated due to the contradictory stipulation that if an employer can prove that they are properly following the government’s guidelines for a safe workplace during the pandemic, then you are required to report to work, even if you don’t feel safe. Worst of all, if you were terminated because of this refusal to work, you would also not be eligible for CERB or any other type of severance pay.
Unsurprisingly, this flurry of confusing and conflicting regulations has led some employers to do the bare minimum in regard to protecting employees. One of the most concerning examples of this has come from two of Toronto’s retirement homes in the case Ontario Nurses Association v. Eatonville/Henley Place. Covering concerns at both Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto and Hawthorne Place in North York, the issues exposed were extremely concerning. For example, at Eatonville, RN Regina Borkovskaia reported that nurses would not be given any PPE to wear when servicing elderly patients showing symptoms of COVID-19, and when servicing elderly patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19, they were only given cheap, run-of-the-mill plastic masks rather than N95 respirators. And at Hawthorne Place, labour relations officer Dan Belford reported that despite the convalescent unit of the facility having an active outbreak of COVID-19, no N95s were given out at all. As a result, due to the nurses working at these facilities being classified as essential workers, they were forced into an extremely high-risk environment without any access to the PPE necessary to make their jobs safe.
We see yet another case of employer negligence with Toronto’s UPS drivers. Now, it goes without saying that delivery drivers are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19; after all, not only do they have to handle over 100 packages per day, but often have to enter the apartments and approach the homes of those they deliver to. Yet, despite this, drivers are not supplied with hand sanitizers, masks, or gloves by the company. And although they have the option of staying home if they feel unsafe, the company refuses to pay them for this proactive measure. Unfortunately, UPS is allowed to do this because they have some very basic measures in place, as they are “regularly cleaning and disinfecting its facilities and equipment” and not requiring employees to collect a signature from those they deliver to. This safety plan is problematic because it follows the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. For although UPS is technically meeting basic requirements by disinfecting facilitiesbefore the packages go out, the plan is heavily flawed. After all, if packages are already infected upon arrival in a UPS warehouse, putting them in a clean facility won’t do much to stop the virus from spreading; likewise, if delivery drivers are entering high density and high risk apartment buildings to deliver packages, a clean warehouse won’t do anything to stop them from contracting the virus. Yet, despite the company’s obvious lack of action, UPS is still able to get away with not properly protecting its employees.
To make matters worse, the future does not seem bright for worker protections. That’s because Doug Ford announced on June 16, 2020 that “We just don’t have the manpower for bylaw and police officers to be chasing people without masks.” As a result, although the Premier will continue to advise people to wear masks, the practice will not be mandatory. Unfortunately, this could open the door to employers who do not want to spend funds from their already insufficient health and safety budgets on masks. This would of course contribute to a potential second wave of cases that many Torontonians have been fearing.
Therefore, we urge all of you to do your duty as responsible citizens and not remain silent. If you are a Toronto resident, then you can click here to access all the forms and phone numbers necessary to report unsafe and unscrupulous business practices such as non-compliance with physical distancing bylaws, the illegal operation of non-essential businesses, and price gouging. If you are an employee who would like to report non-compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, then you can click here to explore your options about filing a grievance. And remember, we’re all at risk when employers decide to disregard the safety of their employees. So, be observant, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to take action if you see business practices that could lead to the spread of disease. Because when you speak up, you are not only protecting yourself, but you are protecting the lives of our city’s most vulnerable.