Shutdown won't stop COVID-19 at Ontario's essential workplaces, advocates say

Shutdown won't stop COVID-19 at Ontario's essential workplaces, advocates say

With essential workplaces continuing to operate during Ontario's post-Christmas shutdown, there are concerns that without proper protection the spread of COVID-19 won't quit either.

Warehouses, food processing plants, manufacturing facilities and some retail stores are among the essential businesses exempt from provincial shutdown orders set to go into effect on Boxing Day.

However, workplaces remain a significant source of COVID-19 infections, provincial data shows. As of Monday, 6,242 cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to workplaces since the beginning of the pandemic.

In comparison, the number of cases linked to recreational settings, such as heavily-restricted gyms, bars and restaurants, is 1,404.

Workplace watchdogs and labour groups say the Ontario government's failure to address this in its latest plan jeopardizes hundreds of thousands of workers, their families, and the very success of the strategy.

"I just think it's absolutely shocking," Deena Ladd, executive director of Workers' Action Centre, said in an interview. "We need to ensure that workers have the protection they need when they go to work, and right now they don't have that."

For Ladd, a simple solution to slow workplace spread of COVID-19 is legislated paid sick leave.

"The people that we work with every day are in such an awful situation. They can't take a day off to take a COVID test, if they have any fear of an infection, because that means a day without pay," Ladd said.

Inspections and enforcement

While remaining open, workplaces must follow health and safety protocols related to COVID-19, such as mask wearing and physical distancing. Ontario's Ministry of Labour is responsible for enforcing the measures under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

"Our ministry is focused on ensuring employers are taking all steps necessary to keep workers safe," spokesperson Kalem McSween said in a statement.

According to the ministry, inspectors have conducted more than 31,000 COVID-19 related inspections and issued more than 32,000 orders to obtain compliance.

Inspectors have forced work to stop at businesses more than 50 times since the beginning of the pandemic, the statement said.

Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, believes the government needs to recognize workplaces as more active locations for COVID-19 infections.

"COVID-19 does not differentiate between our private lives and our workplaces," Coates said. "In order for these [lockdown] measures to be effective, we need to make sure that workers have the protections they need."

Coates said paid sick days is also the main protection the OFL is pushing for. The organization wants 14 sick days legislated by the provincial government.

She said at many workplaces exempt from the lockdown orders, including warehouses and food processors, workers are not entitled to paid sick leave.

"They have to decide if they are going to work sick, or not have the money they need to feed their families," Coates said in an interview.

Ontario's Ministry of Labour is also hiring an additional 100 inspectors, in order to build the "largest workplace safety inspectorate in Ontario's history," its statement said.

The ministry is also doubling the number of phone lines at its Health and Safety Contact Centre.