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‘Morale seems quite low’: Wasaga Beach staff working on site amid coronavirus pandemic

The decision has led to feelings of discomfort in the workplace, according to one town employee, who's name is being withheld due to fear of repercussions for speaking out. PeopleImages / Getty

As local and provincial health officials grapple with fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic, town staff in Wasaga Beach, Ont., are working on site, the local mayor confirmed in a statement Tuesday.

The decision has led to feelings of discomfort in the workplace, according to one town employee, who’s name is being withheld due to fear of repercussions for speaking out.

“The environment is not comfortable,” the staffer told Global News Monday.

“Morale seems quite low. I think some are more anxious than others.”

READ MORE: 14 new coronavirus cases, 2 additional deaths confirmed in Simcoe Muskoka

In an internal Town of Wasaga Beach memo that was exclusively obtained by Global News, CAO George Vadeboncoeur said the municipality won’t be allowing employees to work from home “at this time.” The memo was dated March 25.

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“We are not prepared to implement this option due to concerns about security of information and the productivity of employees,” Vadeboncoeur said in the March 25 memo.

“This option is discussed at each meeting and circumstances may change in the future.”

In a statement Tuesday, Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi said that while town facilities are closed to the public, staff are working on site.

“As an essential service, we believe it is imperative that staff report for work in order to provide public services,” Bifolchi said in the statement.

“We also know that working on site is the best way to protect our corporate data and your private information. We are extra sensitive to cybersecurity because the town suffered a serious debilitating ransomware attack in 2018.”

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According to Wasaga Beach spokesperson Michael Gennings, the town didn’t have tools in place to implement a work from home program when the memo was issued on March 25.

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“Those tools are now in place and can be implemented if required,” Gennings said in an email.

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Gennings didn’t clarify what circumstances would allow or necessitate employees to work from home by time of publication.

Government organizations are considered to be a necessary service under Ontario’s essential workplaces list of what’s permitted to be open amid COVID-19.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has said employers can support staff in practicing physical distancing by allowing them to work flexible hours or from home, in addition to staggering start times, limiting the number of patrons in the workplace and providing two metres between people.

In Tuesday’s statement, Bifolchi said staff are “spaced out, and in many cases, working one-to-an-office.”

“Some staff are working shifts, allowing for fewer people on site,” she added. “Others are working shifts to meet parental and family obligations at home.”

READ MORE: City of Barrie temporarily lays off 55 more employees amid coronavirus pandemic

The unnamed Wasaga Beach employee, however, alleges that the “onus has been put on the individual to ensure the six feet.”

“Everyone seems to have a different degree of comfort with sticking with that,” they said.

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“The message from staff to their respective department heads has been that they want more flexibility with work from home.”

In the March 25 memo to Wasaga Beach employees, Vadeboncoeur said those who don’t feel comfortable coming into work have a few options:

“1) Continue to report for your shift, and if need be, talk to your manager or HR or access our EAP.

2) You have the option of not coming to work if you feel at risk or have childcare challenges. For those that have childcare challenges, we can issue you a record of employment and you can apply for EI. If you choose to not come to work because you feel it’s not in the best interest of your health or you[r] family’s, the town supports that decision. In this case you can utilize your banked time or vacation time. Unfortunately, you will not be eligible for EI.”

In the memo, Vadeboncoeur said employees can come back to work when the pandemic is over.

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“From the early days of the pandemic, to ensure the safety of our staff, we implemented a self-screening process,” Bifolchi said in Tuesday’s statement.

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“Every day, when staff arrive at town facilities, they must complete a questionnaire. If they meet all of the stipulations, they can report for work.”

For the unidentified Wasaga Beach employee, the main concern in the workplace is surrounding the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation.

“If I have it or if I get it and don’t show symptoms, am I spreading it?” they said. “There’s so many uncertainties there that make it a pretty tense and anxious environment to be in.”

On Wednesday, Bifolchi released a statement in response to this story, saying she speaks with Wasaga Beach town staff “on a daily basis” and that she is “not hearing anything about low morale.”

“Throughout this pandemic, we have been open and transparent about staff working on site and the steps taken to ensure staff safety,” Bifolchi said in Wednesday’s statement.

“We would never attack or dismiss a member of our municipal family for feeling unsafe during this time, nor would we punish them down the road.”

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As of Tuesday, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit reported seven cases of COVID-19 in Wasaga Beach and 199 total cases in Simcoe County.

On Tuesday, Ontario has reported 11,735 cases of the novel coronavirus, including 622 deaths.

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