Hon. Rod Phillips
Ontario Minister of Finance
Date: May 11, 2020
Unifor represents 315,000 people working in Canada, including over 160,000 members in Ontario, across a diverse range of public and private sector workplaces. In the past three months, we have coordinated with many employers, including those in workplaces deemed “essential”, to develop proper workplace protocols and safety procedures to protect the health and wellbeing of workers and the public.
As we suggested in our initial letter to the Premier, it is imperative that the province get its restart plans right the first time. Our economy is in as fragile as state as it has ever been. It is hard to fathom the consequences of a second wave of lockdowns. We urge a slow, steady and cautious approach.
We also recognize that each workplace will present unique operational challenges, requiring specific attention. It is beyond the scope of the provincial guidelines to contemplate all circumstances or challenges any single workplace might face. It is incumbent on employers, health officials and labour unions to heed the advice of public health experts, to devise specific workplace strategies that guarantee the safety of all individuals. Nevertheless, provincial guidelines provide critical, directional guidance to all parties, including public sector agencies, as they work to establish plans, practices and protocols for those ‘on-the-ground.’ In that light, these guidelines must aim to be as comprehensive and far-sighted as possible, and should evolve into baseline orders that employers must follow, or face penalty.
It is not our intent in this letter to prescribe detailed, sector-specific solutions and alterations to the guidelines. What we are presenting to you are recommendations based on three broad-based policy areas that we believe are essential to an economic restart plan that is resilient and inclusive, that we hope you will consider.
Our recommendations and policy guidance are as follows:
- Government must provide clear guidance on worker rights, including the Right to Refuse, Right to Know and Right to Participate as well as guidance on employer responsibilities
All of our experience relating to health and safety in the COVID-19 context points to the need for clarity. Government must provide clarity to workers on the rights they have under the law and how to assert them during COVID-19. Government must provide clarity to employers of the responsibilities they have under the law and how to ensure they are meeting them.
The guidelines posted on the Ontario government website lay out only one very specific right workers have: the right to refuse. This is a critically important right, but it is a right of last resort in the fight against COVID-19 and certainly not the only right available to workers.
Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) cements into law that all workers have the right to know about the hazards that are present on the job and how those hazards could affect them. This includes critical injuries to themselves or their coworkers such as COVID-19.
The OHSA also provides workers the right to participate in workplace health and safety activities through the Health and Safety Committee (HSC) or as a worker health and safety representative. This includes providing input into health and safety protocols without threat of reprisal.
These rights are in addition to the right to refuse unsafe work, and no less critical. If a worker believes their job is likely to endanger them or another worker, they have an obligation to report the unsafe situation to management and, if not resolved, the ability to refuse to perform the work without reprisal. These are complementary rights. These rights must be enshrined in any official guidance presented by the province to both workers and employers.
Just last week, the Toronto Star reported that the Ontario Ministry of Labour upheld exactly zero unsafe work refusals, despite hundreds having been made. This is concerning and warrants greater attention by provincial officials. However, when the right to refuse is the only right recognized in the official guidelines for returning to work, and workers believe that exercising this right is futile, this will stoke greater fear in workers as they head back into the workplace. Workers need encouragement from the province to exercise their rights and to have these rights reinforced through regular and targeted communication. Expanding the number proactive workplace inspections can assist in this goal. Ensuring materials and correspondence with workers is accessible (including by providing official materials in multiple languages) is critical as well.
The guidelines lay out a minimal set of employer responsibilities to report WSIB claims to the Ministry of Training, Labour and Skills Development. This is one important responsibility but there are many others under law. Clear and effective communication of these responsibilities is needed in the context of COVID-19 in order to ensure employers, small and large, those with in-house health and safety expertise and those without, understand the duty they have to protect their staff and the public.
If we are to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is imperative the province remind employers of their responsibilities in an easily accessible way in order to avoid frustration and overwhelm as they engage with the content.
Employers have a general duty to take “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker". This precautionary principle is vital, and must guide all future decision-making on whether, and how, to re-open businesses. Government should provide a list of employer responsibilities that are required at all times and highlight the specific set that is particularly important to reinforce in the context of COVID-19.
- Take every reasonable precaution to ensure the workplace is safe;
- Ensure a process for input and participation from workers including a health and safety committee or health and safety representatives;
- Train employees about any potential hazards and how to protect oneself from them;
- Make sure workers use any necessary personal protective equipment – and use it properly;
- Ensure that hazard information is shared – COVID-19 is a hazard;
- Appoint a competent supervisor who sets the standards for performance, and who ensures safe working conditions are always observed;
- Provide contact information for the health and safety supervisor.
- Government must ensure sufficient amounts of Personal Protective Equipment is available to all workers, prior to workplaces reopening
Based on our experiences, Unifor is of the view that any successful workplace restart must meet the twin goals of ensuring workers and the public are safe (with proper safety protocols and precautions put in place) and that they feel safe.
Designing operational workplace procedures in line with provincial guidelines, and based on expert advice of medical officials, can help limit – if not entirely remove – threats of the coronavirus’ transmission. However, this alone will not eliminate the anxiety, trepidation and distrust workers will feel when asked to leave their home and re-enter the workplace.
As the Premier has expressed publicly, there is concern over access to PPE in Ontario. Unifor members working on the frontlines of this crisis regularly raise concerns over inadequate supplies of masks, gloves and gowns. Sadly, last week Unifor grieved the death of one of its members, Leonard Rodriquez, a Personal Support Worker in supportive housing after succumbing to COVID-19. Rodriquez lacked employer-provided PPE and, instead, purchased his own equipment at a local thrift store. This is wholly unacceptable. Others are in similar situations.
Our union shares the Premier’s frustration of the lack of pre-existing production capacity to source essential medical equipment in a timely manner. Our over-reliance on imports of PPE and other necessary goods creates unnecessary vulnerabilities in the economy, including during a national crisis such as this. Imploring automakers and other firms to retool facilities to make limited quantities of PPE is necessary, and inspiring (Unifor members are among those contributing to this effort across the province). However, it is a stopgap strategy – not a solution.
The demand for PPE currently is at crisis levels. News reports this week suggest a near depletion of Canada’s inventory, forcing governments and firms to rely on imports – including products that do not meet current Canadian safety standards.
If the demand for PPE in Canada currently outstrips supply, a large scale reopening of provincial economies will only place further limit access. Additionally, as Ontario’s auto industry continues to coordinate its restart within North America, it is possible that many re-tooled parts facilities will cease production of PPE in order to ready themselves to commence car production.
It is not appropriate for firms to restart operations without adequate supply of PPE for workers, particularly those in public-facing workplaces (where customers may need access to PPE as well).
We urge the provincial government to continue its efforts to bolster Ontario’s inventory of PPE, and to ensure that inventory levels are sufficient to supply all workplaces with the necessary and appropriate equipment. This must include due consideration of the provincial government taking control of vacant manufacturing capacity, transitioning operations expediently, and directly manufacturing PPE across the province. If supply cannot meet demand, in this case, the province must extend its timeframe for re-start.
- Government must ensure that as the economy reopens, accessibility to transit and child care is of paramount importance
Over the coming weeks, many workers will return to work. Despite any fears or reservations some may have, the simple act of getting to work may prove to be the biggest barrier. For many workers in urban centres and especially those with low-income, access to work is contingent on access to public transit. Across Canada, municipal and regional transit authorities are facing significant financial challenges. As ridership declines, so does passenger fare revenue. News reports suggest drops in ridership on Toronto’s TTC and GO Transit of between 80 and 90 percent, resulting from the pandemic.
Some transit authorities in Canada, while moving to establish safety protocols for passengers and drivers, have already announced planned route reductions, less frequent bus and train stops, along with staff layoffs. This week, for example, residents in the GTA are bracing for an historic service cut at the TTC, reportedly affecting 120 existing bus and streetcar routes. Similar service reductions are happening, or will happen, in communities throughout the province.
Similarly, the lack of access to childcare spaces will significantly constrain workers’ ability to return to work. We recognize the good work done by the province to provide free access to essential workers in need of this vital public service. We also welcomed news that the province will expand the list of eligible workers who have access to free childcare. Although temporary, and absent a permanent universal, publicly funded programs, this is still an important move to ease the financial burden of childcare on families, and improve access.
As Phase I plans for re-opening the economy continue to rollout, more workers will find themselves with limited accessibility to work. This will create additional constraints on workers, compounded for those that rely on other public services for mobility. The increased demand for childcare spaces will create new challenges for providers and frontline workers, who are attempting to practice social distancing and carry out duties in a safe way. As stated in previous correspondence to the Premier, the system requires significant additional funds to not only ensure additional spaces but proper staffing and sanitization.
It is imperative that the province conducts proper modelling scenarios on both transit and childcare needs and is prepared to disburse the necessary funds to maintain these vital services prior to initiating further phased workplace re-starts.
Ontario is moving towards reopening certain sectors of the economy, but this cannot be under a business as usual scenario. Keeping workers and the public safe is a monumental task and one that is gravely important. Our experience over these last three months has stretched our health and safety programs to their max and we have found that where programs are strong and communication is constant, success is likely to follow. When protocols and guidelines are weak, when employers fail to meet their responsibilities, a smooth transition for workers and employers is nearly impossible.
The provincial government must provide clear guidance on worker rights as well as employer responsibilities; ensure critical services, notably transit and childcare, are accessible to workers at every step of the restart program; and that workplace restarts happen in lockstep with sufficient PPE for all workers.
Three additional documents are included as an addendum to this letter, including Unifor’s Returning to Work from COVID-19 Closure Fact Sheet; Lear’s Safe Work Playbook (which we view as an excellent template to guide return to work protocols by other employers) and Unifor’s analysis on communicating worker rights and employer responsibilities in the context of COVID-19.
Please contact my office if you have any additional questions or require clarification.
I look forward to working with you as you further refine the re-opening guidelines and move towards subsequent phases of Ontario’s restart and recovery plan.
Unifor Ontario Regional Director