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FORUM: To curb COVID-19, Ontario must protect workers (Feb. 2021)

March 5th, 2021 · No Comments

Ontario lags behind other jurisdictions

By Jessica Bell

I am concerned the Ford government is opening the economy too fast, setting the stage for another round of illness, preventable death, overwhelmed hospitals and lockdowns. We must make decisions based on what’s best for our public health. When we reopen, we must reopen carefully and slowly, with safety first and foremost in mind. We must make Ontario’s workplaces more safe.

Recently, our office received a call from a resident that I’m going to call Sam. Sam had a complaint about her employer, Starbucks. Sam didn’t want to go to work because a colleague had COVID-19, and Sam felt she wasn’t being provided with proper PPE to protect herself. Sam was too scared to go public because she didn’t want to be fired. Sam eventually caught COVID-19. 

Ontario’s laws do not adequately help Sam and the thousands of lower wage, precarious, and frontline workers like her.

It has always been important to raise the wages, benefits and working conditions of lower wage workers, and this pandemic has made it all the more urgent because COVID-19 is spreading at work. Data collected by Peel Health shows the extent of the problem. Peel Health found that sixty-six per cent of confirmed community outbreaks in Peel reported between September and December 2020 occurred at work.

Here are four things that I am asking the Ontario government to do that will help workers and curb the spread of COVID-19 at work.

In Ontario, the majority of lower income workers do not have paid sick days. This forces people to make the impossible choice of going to work with symptoms because they can’t afford to pay their rent or buy food if they don’t. People are going to work sick. One in four COVID-19 cases identified through contact tracing by Peel Health were individuals who had gone to work with symptoms.

My colleague, MPP Peggy Sattler, has introduced a bill called “Stay At Home if You Are Sick” which, if passed, will require employers to provide workers with seven paid sick days a year, and an extra 14 days if there is a pandemic. Doug Ford needs to stop abdicating his responsibility to provide protection to workers and say yes to the bill immediately.

Second, measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, such as physical distancing and the mandatory wearing of masks, need to be properly enforced. The Ontario government has done a halfhearted job of enforcing the rules, only ramping up inspections in recent weeks. And what is also shocking to learn is that the vast majority of workplaces that are found to have been breaking the rules are not being fined. They should be.

To further bolster workplace safety rules, all workplace outbreaks across Ontario should be publicized. Only Toronto has agreed to make workplace outbreaks public, and their reporting has so far been weak.

Finally, workers should also have the right to refuse unsafe work. Many Ontario workers have been trying to refuse work due to COVID-19 fears — but the government isn’t letting them. The Ontario Labour Relations Board, which resolves disputes between employers and employees, has denied nearly all requests by workers to refuse unsafe work because of COVID-19. That is not a sign of a government that cares enough about worker safety.

With the arrival of variants, this pandemic could be reaching a new and more dangerous stage. It is paramount that we listen to public health and take meaningful steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. These steps will not just help us save lives now, but they will help make Ontario’s economy more fair for the people we are grateful for every single day: the minimum wage worker, the front line worker, the essential worker, the people like Sam.

Worried about your workplace safety and want advice? Call the Workers Action Centre hotline (416) 531-0778 or visit their website. You can also call our office at 416 535-7206.

Jessica Bell is MPP for University—Rosedale.


Tags: Annex · Opinion