Canadian Manufacturing

Testing, sick leave and enforcement needed in manufacturing sector to slow workplace spread in Ontario: experts

Observers said there isn't consistency when it comes to penalties for employers, or even naming workplaces where outbreaks happen.

January 22, 2021  The Canadian Press

As Ontario struggles to beat back a dire wave of COVID-19, workplace spread has been singled out by public health experts, mayors and top health officials as a major source of infections.

Experts and workers say government measures so far haven’t directly targeted the issue, but fairly simple practices would help track and reduce infections.

Epidemiologist Colin Furness at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health said there should be clear consequences for employers that don’t take proper precautions at this point in the pandemic.

“We know from contact tracing data and outbreak investigations what some of the most risky environments are. We should be coming down on them like a ton of bricks,” Furness said.

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Hundreds of people have been infected in recent outbreaks linked to workplaces, including at least 121 workers at a Canada Post facility whose cases were reported this week and more than 140 people at a Cargill-owned meat processing facility in Guelph, Ont., last month.

Hundreds of migrant workers tested positive on Ontario farms last summer, and more than 5,000 long-term care staff have been infected to date.

But observers said there isn’t consistency when it comes to penalties for employers, or even naming workplaces where outbreaks happen.

Putting pressure on employers is also important to make sure other measures are effective, Furness said, including paid sick leave, which has become a prominent political issue in Ontario. Mayors from province’s largest cities have been calling for months for accessible, universal paid sick leave so workers don’t come to work sick over fear of losing income — an argument supported nearly universally by public health experts.

Janice Mills, who has a job in auto manufacturing, said sick leave is the biggest issue at the Glencoe, Ont, plant where she works with about 50 other people per shift.

Workers can apply for the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit introduced to support people missing work over a COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure, but they’re only eligible if they miss 50 per cent of the work week.

That’s an issue for hourly workers at Mills’ plant, she said, because if someone falls ill on Thursday or Friday, they can’t make use of the benefit until the following week.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said Ontario isn’t looking to implement its own sick leave policy because there are still millions of dollars available through the federal benefit.

McNaughton also pointed to the government’s recent “inspection blitz” of big-box stores, which is expanding to more industries. Most fines have been relatively small, at less than $1,000 per infraction, but McNaughton said some larger investigations are underway, and employers should be aware of the potential for fines up to $1.5 million.