Workers in Ontario and Quebec filed thousands of complaints about unsafe working conditions as the novel coronavirus swept across Canada and pounded the country’s two most populous provinces, according to government statistics obtained by Global News.
There were more than 5,700 complaints related to COVID-19 in both provinces, with more than three-quarters filed in Ontario.
The provinces did not disclose details of the total number of COVID-related investigations, but confirmed there were 23 work refusals that met the provincial criteria.
Twenty-two of those work refusal cases were in Quebec, while just one was accepted in Ontario.
In Ontario, labour inspectors completed 8,600 field inspections. Of those, 4,000 were conducted in-person and more than 4,600 were conducted remotely.
With a possible second wave of COVID-19 on the horizon, experts say the provinces need to take greater steps to improve worker safety including more robust visits from health and safety inspectors.
“There have been a disturbingly high number of cases of work-related COVID-19 cases where you see a lot of front-line workers, whether it’s in long-term care, but also emergency workers, health care workers, and people working in grocery stores,” said Christine Davies, a lawyer with Goldblatt Partners in Toronto.
“That should cause us to think about whether or not we have an adequate system of protecting workers.”
In Ontario, more than 4,300 COVID-related complaints were made between March and the end of May, up from just 33 complaints in the first two months of 2020.
Quebec, meanwhile, has seen the total number of labour complaints from March 1 to May 31 more than double from the same period in 2019, going from 798 to 1,719.
This includes 1,357 complaints in 2020 that were directly related to concerns about COVID-19, according to the provincial body that enforces Quebec’s labour laws.
Both Quebec and Ontario – which account for more than 87 per cent of the country’s more than 95,600 COVID-19 cases – have similar legislation where employers are legally required to protect workers from injury and illness, including from infectious diseases.
Employees have a right to refuse work if they feel their jobs present a danger to their health or safety.
Quebec didn’t disclose how many workers had tried to exercise their right to refuse work, but confirmed that 22 work-refusal complaints were justified between March and the end of May.
Hermie Abraham, a Toronto employment lawyer, said the rise in worker complaints could also be attributed to the uncertainty about the virus.
“Workers are going to seek to protect themselves as much as possible because they know that their employer is balancing not only the health and safety of employees, but also their own economic interests,” she told Global News.
265 work refusals, just 1 accepted
In Ontario, there were at least 265 requests for work refusals between February and the end of May under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, but only one was accepted.
“All other work refusals related to COVID-19 did not meet the criteria. For workers to initiate a formal work refusal, the danger must be based on current conditions they’re exposed to,” ministry spokesperson Janet Deline said in a statement, adding that inspectors issued 4,481 orders related to COVID-19.
“When the requirements for a work refusal are not met, the issue will be treated as a complaint.”
The Quebec labour commission said its inspectors intervened 4,481 times, but said it could not disclose all details of what happened in those cases since some matters remain under investigation and because the law allows for parties to appeal decisions and sanctions.
Davies, the Toronto labour lawyer, called Ontario’s numbers “appalling” as almost every work refusal was not accepted.
“What you’re really talking about are [265 complaints] that have been escalated to the level of the ministry [and] have found to be unsubstantiated,” she said. “Those are cases where the ministry sided with the employer that the work was not unsafe.”
Concerns over inspections
Advocates have been raising the alarm for months about the quality of investigations being carried out into workers’ complaints, Davies said.
She said the numbers don’t paint a complete picture, as many essential workers, like nurses and doctors, can’t typically file work refusals. Health-care workers, for example, can only refuse unsafe work if it will not endanger someone in their care.
“Industry and labour investigators apparently do not want to go on site, into many workplaces, to actually investigate the refusals in-person – instead conducting investigations over the telephone,” she said.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour said that in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, in-person visits were reduced to help stop the spread of infections amid uncertainty about the virus.
“We continue to conduct inspections and investigations both in-person and remotely,” said spokesperson Deline. “Inspectors exercise their discretion in accordance with their training and professional judgement using ministry protocols to determine how to conduct inspections.”
She said that when inspections are conducted remotely or in-person, both the employer and the worker representatives are interviewed.
“A large portion of the COVID-19 work refusals were initiated by workers who have limited rights to refuse work under the OHSA and although the work refusals may not be upheld, [ministry] inspectors would investigate these work refusals as a workplace complaint where there is a hazard identified,” she said.
“In some cases, the health and safety concerns were resolved internally by the workplace parties with assistance from a [ministry] health and safety inspector if required.”
The issue of inspectors refusing to enter some workplaces boiled over after the Canadian military released its scathing report on allegations of neglect and abuse in long-term care homes.
Premier Doug Ford said he was sick of “taking bullets” for unionized government inspectors who, he alleged, refused to go into the province’s long-term care homes.
Ontario Public Service Employees Union president Smokey Thomas said inspectors were “overworked and frustrated,” but “dutifully committed to their obligations amidst this pandemic.
“They continue to investigate what needs to be done to flatten the curve and save lives, despite the fact only 164 inspectors are on the job supporting 626 homes,” Thomas wrote in a sharply worded letter that also pushed for increased staffing.
At least 1,865 long-term-care employees have been infected in Ontario and seven have died, according to the province.
Long-term care home crisis
Both provinces have been flooded with horrific testimony from workers at long-term care facilities who said they were forced to stay on the job, despite lacking access to adequate protective gear such as masks, gloves and gowns, and knowing that some of their colleagues were dead because of COVID-19.
But the statistics indicate that most of these workers, at least in Quebec, did not file complaints. Only 116 Quebec health-care workers had filed COVID-related workplace safety complaints between March and the end of May.
This is fewer than the number of COVID-related complaints in three other sectors in the province, including retail workers who filed 392 complaints, construction workers who filed 324 complaints, and manufacturing workers who filed 204 complaints during the same three-month period.
As Ontario takes more steps to reopen its economy and more people come back into the workplace, both Davies and Abraham said there are concerns about protection for workers who feel compelled to come back into the office.
“Once you start having more of these workplaces open, especially ones that deliver care, you’re going to find a lot more issues that are coming to light,” said Abraham.
“I believe these numbers will continue to grow until there’s a little bit more of a cogent response as to how we can keep workers safe.”
Finn Makela, a law professor at Sherbrooke University, said the work-refusal complaints he’s heard about in Quebec are similar to Ontario over access to protective gear.
Long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec have been ravaged by the virus and led to massive infections among residents and staff.
Outbreaks have also occurred at meat-processing facilities, where some workers have publicly complained about the lack of protective gear and other unsafe conditions that could expose workers to the virus.
“I expect that there’s going to be ongoing discussions and maybe disagreements between the major health care unions and the government in terms of what’s required to make their workplace safe,” he said.
The Ontario Federation of Labour wrote to the Ford government in April raising concerns that “work refusals related to COVID-19 are not being taken seriously” and that inspectors are being “handcuffed by red tape and bureaucracy.”
President Patty Coates said it’s “very concerning” that when workers feel unsafe, “they don’t feel that the Ministry of Labour is actually on their side, listening to them and taking their concerns seriously.”
Coates said she’s heard from workers who claim that employers weren’t providing or rationing personal protective equipment (PPE). Those allegations are consistent with a report from the Canadian military on long-term care homes in Ontario that found that workers were scared to ask for PPE.
“When it’s done over the phone, you actually can’t see what’s happening in the workplace,” Coates said.
She pointed to the SARS Commission that investigated the government’s response to the 2003 epidemic, which found a greater need for stronger independent enforcement by the Ministry of Labour to contain outbreaks.
“We have stories where the employer said they had PPE, but it was locked in a closet. And so when the Ministry of Labor called, they were told that ‘Oh, yes, we have the PPE.’ The employer didn’t say that it was being rationed.”
“It’s very disconcerting what is going on.”
Both Ontario and Quebec governments say they are working with health officials to prevent infections as employees return to the workplace, like mandatory physical-distancing policies, wearing masks, Plexiglas barriers between customers and employees, and frequent cleaning of high-tough surfaces.
Quebec’s labour commission has published 16 different sets of guidelines for different sectors to protect workers.
Davies said workplaces should look to implement the “precautionary principle” as the economy begins to reopen where employers take the best precautions rather than waiting for the best scientific data.
“It has to be supplemented by a robust and well-resourced regime of work investigations, both reactive when there are complaints and proactively investigating the workplaces that are open to make sure that people are as protected as we can possibly make it.”
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