Unions across job sectors crying out for increased safety measures

Unions across the country are pushing for further measures to keep their members safe, whether they stock the frozen food section in a grocery store or care for critically-ill patients in an intensive care unit.

Health-care workers

Unifor had strong words for an Ontario government directive that allows employers to ask long-term care workers who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus but aren’t yet showing symptoms to return to work under isolation. “Sending what we know are potentially infectious people back into the most high-risk and vulnerable institutions demonstrates a lack of care that really borders on heartless,” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, in a press release. “Someone must explain to me how a frontline caregiver can work under isolation.” 

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In Nova Scotia, five unions representing more than 40,000 health-care workers are calling on the provincial government to sign a protocol to provide personal protective equipment to frontline health-care workers. In a press release, the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Unifor and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727 said they’ve been asking Premier Stephen McNeil to sign a protocol similar to the ones signed by governments and employers in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick since the pandemic arrived in the province.

The CUPE is also asking Manitoba to commit to making sure staff have consistent and adequate personal protective equipment. “We are hearing from health-care support workers in many long-term care homes, public and private, that frontline staff are not receiving adequate PPE and that available levels change daily,” said Shannon McAteer, health-care coordinator at the CUPE, in a press release. 

CUPE said provincial health guidelines only requiring personal protective equipment for staff who have “direct contact” with residents is inadequate, given that personal care home staff operate in close contact. It also called on the province to address staffing issues in long-term care homes to prevent shortages during the pandemic.

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Further, the National Union of Public and General Employees sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanding that the federal government bring residential care facilities across the country under cover of the Canada Health Act. In a press release, Larry Brown, president of the NUPGE, said the change would “be a concrete step to ensuring that the privatization of residential care facilities does not come at the expense of residents and staff.” 

The letter also asked the federal government to increase funding for support workers and residents in residential care homes. 

Transportation workers

The faction of Unifor representing employees of Vancouver public transit system TransLink is voicing its objections to potential cuts to service. The union said the social distancing measures required on buses are already causing strain amid the public and that essential services workers who use public transit need adequate and safe service now more than ever. “Cutting transit service would make life even more difficult for working COVID-19 heroes and, ultimately, the people they have been dutifully serving,” said Dias, in a press release. 

Also on the west coast, BC Ferries revoked 1,400 temporary layoff notices days after the BC Ferry & Marine Workers’ Union filed an unfair labour practice complaint, saying the layoffs could be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. The corporation, which announced the layoffs as a result of coronavirus-related service reductions, said last week it was seeking to determine if employees are qualified for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.

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As well, the union representing Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge workers is asking the company to help employees whose parental, disability or other leave conflicts with their ability to benefits from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.

The government-funded 75 per cent wage subsidy is presently based on pay received between Jan. 1 and March 15, which will exclude many workers who would otherwise be back at work right now were it not for COVID-19,” noted a release from the CUPE. 

Grocery and food workers

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, representing 32,000 workers across Canada’s western provinces is recommending that governments restrict people from going to the grocery store more than once a week.

It suggested membership cards and loyalty programs could be used to track visitors. The union is also asking the public to be accountable for their own behaviour in grocery store settings, citing polls its conducted that show the vast majority of workers are feeling afraid.

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Meanwhile, in Ontario, liquor stores remain open as essential services and locations have demonstrated exemplary safety measures, Colleen MacLeod, chair of the liquor employees division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, told the London Free Press. One London Ont. location was swiftly closed and remained so for three days for a deep cleaning after the Liquor Control Board of Ontario learned that an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The LCBO considers the health and well-being of its employees our top priority and we are working with OPSEU Liquor Board Employee Division to ensure that the store’s employees are given information and the support they need moving forward,” noted a press release from the LCBO.

The OPSEU had also pushed for plexiglass barriers at registers which have now been installed. The union remains keen to see cashiers on only every other till to increase the distance between everyone in the stores.

Municipal employees

The CUPE Ontario, which represents almost 80,000 Ontario municipal workers, said it wants the provincial government to fund municipalities during the pandemic so city staff can remain on the payroll and continue to provide services to residents. 

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“Municipal services matter, now more than ever — and many municipal governments are doing the right thing by keeping workers on staff,” said Fred Hahn, president of the CUPE Ontario, in a press release. “As this crisis unfolds, we need that to continue. Communities need the provincial government to send a clear and strong message to all public sector employers that now’s the time communities need public services, not layoffs.” 

By law, Ontario municipalities aren’t allowed to run deficits and the union said the pandemic has shown it’s time to re-evaluate that constraint because it puts cities “in a box” during a crisis. “The province just needs to put up the funds and finally examine archaic rules that leave municipalities without the tools they desperately need today,” said Candace Rennick, the CUPE Ontario’s secretary-treasurer, in the release.


Three Saskatchewan unions are calling on municipal, provincial and federal governments to provide extra support to community-based organizations that provide necessary services such as addiction counselling, daycares, group homes, mobile crisis agencies and women’s shelters. The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union, the Service Employees International Union — West and the CUPE Saskatchewan, which represent workers at about 80 agencies across the province, said the sector requires extra funding and guidelines and training for the use of personal protective equipment.

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“We are calling for government oversight to ensure proper protocols are in place to protect workers and clients,” said Judy Henley, president of the CUPE Saskatchewan, in a news release. “We need to provide resources in the form of protocols and supplies of PPE; a plan for multi-site work to avoid the spread of the virus; and program and staff resources to ensure the safety of the staff and clients as they manage some incredibly difficult challenges that are unique to the [community-based organizations] sector.”