It’s almost hard to believe that for many of us we’re starting our third month living with the measures to fight Covid-19. It was two months ago today that Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the province was closing schools, a watershed moment in this province where things really started to shut down. It’s been somewhat surreal, given that in some sense it feels ages ago that “normal” times were happening but on the other hand, it sometimes feels like time has flown. It’s all a bit disorienting for sure.
As we enter into month three of this fight though we’re starting to see things re-open bit by bit. Most jurisdictions in Canada are taking a slower approach, opening things like garden stores, hardware stores and today provincial parks for people to go for walks. The exception so far seems to be Quebec, which is going further and faster, which has led them to already push back re-opening dates.
But Quebec’s moves to re-open schools has shown us a new tension that is coming, faster than some might think. In the past 48 hours we’ve seen two stories come out that point to this tension that will cause some serious problems for governments, especially depending on how they decide to approach it. The first story comes from CBC.ca, and it’s striking:
We’ve seen many stories in the media over the past few weeks about how Covid-19 has hit meat processing facilities, with workers falling sick and some having lost their lives. That has put increased pressure on the supply chain for various meat products, to the point where many farmers are in huge trouble. Needless to say, there is a big problem here for many and the ability to get processing going in a safe manner will be vital. But in doing that, we are seeing legitimate issues coming up.
That brings us to this cbc.ca story about the union representing Canada’s food inspectors raising serious concerns, alleging that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is “threatening disciplinary action against employees who refuse to be reassigned to work at COVID-19-infected meat plants.” According to the story, the CFIA wants to redeploy employees who normally work in other areas to work in the meat sector as inspectors, with only a brief training period. According to union president Fabian Murphy, those employees being sent into these facilities would only get a 2-day “crash course” of training to do this important job, one that’s become much more dangerous to do. Finally Murphy goes onto state that if those workers refuse to go into those facilities to be “redeployed”, they could face “suspension or even termination.”
A statement from CFIA is quoted in the story that employees can refuse work if they have “reasonable cause to believe there is danger”, saying that no one has yet but the fact that this is a story tells us that the union has legitimate reason to believe the opposite. And think how it would look if the federal government forced staff to go to work in an environment that’s been having safety concerns because of this pandemic that companies and government have been working hard to get their hands around. Everyone recognizes there is a concern that everyone is still trying to understand, so surely there is a “reasonable cause to believe there is danger” for workers who would be dragooned into serving in jobs they have no experience in with a mere two-days training. How the government eventually proceeds with this will be something to watch. As will another story, a detail that came out from Ontario on Saturday that flew a bit under the radar, but jumped out at me:
Buried in Saturday’s announcement that Ontario will be re-opening provincial parks was that the Ontario government approved an emergency order to allow “school board employees to be voluntarily redeployed to hospitals, long-term care homes, retirement homes and women’s shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.” In a sign of the times, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, all of whom represent teachers and education workers, are supporting this move. According to this move, staff would still get paid as they normally do as education workers, and they would also be eligible for the provincial government’s pandemic pay and emergency childcare. And according to ETFO, anyone who volunteers to do this will get “the necessary training, orientation, safety and personal protective equipment before beginning the first shifts and will be paid while doing so.”
Now I have to admit my leeriness with this move, but that feeling is put more at ease because of the support from the unions representing staff and the measures that they are taking here. And the big key here is the fact that this is voluntary, unlike what the other story here was proposing. There is a crying need for help in these healthcare facilities and to deal with that, there will need to be more people going into those places to work. But given the clear dangers in those facilities for staff, forcing inexperienced and lightly trained people to go in there would surely lead to many people refusing out of concern for their own safety. So in this case you see Ontario going the voluntary route, allowing those who want to do this to do so, all while not risking their financial well being and giving them the same supports that other folks fighting this emergency are getting. It surely makes for a strong contrast to what we’re seeing from the CFIA story.
But both of these stories are just the start of stories like these we’ll see all over country as things start to re-open. The fact is that every situation will be different, but one thing that’s becoming crystal clear is that re-opening will not a simple matter of just going back to the way things were before. Re-opening will involve many changes, many which we haven’t thought of yet, just to ensure that things are safe. That will be harder in some cases than others, but this is a big part of our new reality. Another part of that reality will be the human element, the new health risks that average, everyday workers will face and how will government deal with ensuring needs are staffed.
Will they force people into these situations, or will they take volunteers? You see examples of both above and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But I will suggest that just as workers are going to have to adjust to new realities, so will governments and employers. No one created this situation, so in my view that means that both sides need to adjust themselves. So while some workers may need to move into different places to help meet immediate needs, governments should also be flexible in how they find those people to get them there. Trying to force people into dangerous positions will just create more tension and ill will without actually helping those in need.
Asking volunteers to go in will allow people to make their own decisions, assess their own risks and determine for themselves if they are willing to accept them. In doing so, you’re going to get many people step forward and those people will want to be there. We’ve seen so many people step up in these hard days and I’m confident that if asked, many folks will step up to offer their work in service of the public good. Despite it all, we’ve seen many people do that already and now is the time for governments to embrace our better angels and not use force to fill these positions. I feel confident that if CFIA took the same approach as Ontario did here, they would get much better results than what they’re looking at now.