On New Year’s Day, Hong arrived at the industrial laundry facility where he’s worked for the past decade, unloading and unpacking bags of dirty linens and garments.
He took his lunch break with a longtime colleague and friend, as he had countless times before. But on this day, his friend was not feeling well. He complained of dizziness and had a cough, but he told Hong he had to come into work.
He was the only person in his household with a job at the time, and with no paid sick leave, he made a calculation: put food on the table for his family or go hungry.
“He needed money, so he forced himself to go to work,” Hong says.
Eight days later, his colleague was rushed to hospital. He remained in the intensive care unit until he died three weeks later from COVID-19. He was one month away from retirement.
Hong also tested positive for COVID-19, as did another co-worker who was in the lunchroom that day.
Global News agreed to hide Hong’s identity as he fears reprisal from his employer.
It marked the beginning of a months-long saga of health issues for Hong — extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and swollen legs that make it painful to stand for more than an hour. After medical tests showed he’s still suffering symptoms, Hong worries he now falls into a rare group, which many now refer to as “COVID long-haulers.”
When he returned to work, he says he discovered that his colleagues did not know about his COVID-19 diagnosis.
“The company didn’t tell my colleagues that I had contracted COVID-19,” he says, adding that it also didn’t acknowledge his co-worker’s death.
Unable to stand for his ten hour shifts, Hong is now off and is receiving workers compensation.
He says his health issues and co-worker’s death could have been prevented had paid sick leave been available and if more infection control measures were in place in the lunchroom. While pieces of plexiglass divide tables, it was not enough to prevent the virus from spreading.
“The lunchroom is about 30 square metres, you can, at most, have 20 people in there. How do you maintain social distance in such a space?” Hong says. “It’s impossible.”
COVID-19 has stricken workplaces in the third wave of the pandemic — as warehouses, manufacturing and food processing plants continue to be significant drivers of transmission.
In Ontario alone, 68 people have died from COVID-19 that they got at work and more than 25,500 had contracted it on the job as of May 31, according to the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). But advocates say those numbers could be even higher since they only include people who have submitted claims to the WSIB.
Many also argue provincial governments were slow to act and enforce rules. In some provinces, like Ontario, that has since changed, but despite increased workplace inspections and enforcement, essential workers continue to contract COVID-19 on the job.
More deadly and contagious variants have further increased the risk essential workers face just showing up to work every day. And new research suggests that COVID-19 spreads primarily through airborne transmission.
Experts and advocates say workplace infection control measures have not been strengthened enough to reflect that.
For months, health-care professionals, scientists, and occupational health and safety experts have been pushing the federal and provincial governments to strengthen rules around airborne transmission.
“There continues to be a lack of attention to the importance of ventilation at the provincial and federal levels,” states an open letter from more than 300 experts that was sent to the prime minister, premiers and chief medical officers of the federal and provincial governments in January.
More recently, in April, the Occupational Hygiene Association of Ontario (OHAO), an organization of occupational hygiene professionals that work to prevent the spread of diseases in workplaces, sent a letter to the Ontario Ministry of Labour warning that the “new variants appear to be overwhelming previously prescribed control measures” and that increased control measures were needed to keep essential workers safe.
“We have to deal with that piece,” says Anne-Marie Landis-Groom, president of the OHAO. “All of these other public health measures of handwashing, social distancing — those are absolutely part of the puzzle, but the ventilation piece, which is within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labour, is the one tool that really hasn’t been flexed.”
Ministry inspectors can order an employer to have their ventilation system reviewed under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).
“The ministry seems to be only focusing on employers maintaining the ventilation that they have, but not trying to improve the ventilation,” says Landis-Groom.
The organization is calling on the Ontario government to require employers to investigate improved ventilation controls and implement such measures. It is also recommending the province mandate the use of N95 masks and add on-site rapid testing in workplaces identified by inspectors as high risk due to poor ventilation in order to keep essential workers safe.
“They have to go to work and they should be going to work and leaving work in the same condition, hopefully with more money in their pocket,” says Landis-Groom.
In a statement, the Ontario Ministry of Labour says it continues “to review and evaluate evolving scientific information during the pandemic, including the scientific evidence on the variants of concern and disease transmission.”
The department says it’s up to inspectors to determine if ventilation systems are not in compliance with OHSA guidelines. The ministry declined to say how many times inspectors had ordered assessments of employers’ ventilation systems and if any changes had been made based on those investigations.
The ministry also says its recommendations on personal protective equipment (PPE) will remain. Currently, an N95 respirator is only required for certain medical procedures and in some health-care settings.
Long-standing issues exposed
Last spring, when Deena Ladd first became aware of the crisis unfolding in long-term care, she got a sick feeling in her stomach.
“All of these stories were coming out of long-term care and all of the seniors were dying. But all of the conditions that were being described were all the conditions that I knew were prevalent and systemic in every other sector,” Ladd says.
She’s the founder and executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, an organization that supports workers and advocates for changes to labour laws to improve wages and working conditions.
“I knew that when those sectors reopened, what was happening in long-term care would shift to those warehouses, to those factories, to all of those other settings.”
Before the pandemic started, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in Ontario stripped some workers of newly created paid sick days, scheduling rights and a wage increase as part of his “open for business” platform.
“So a lot of essential workers came into the pandemic in a much more vulnerable place than they would have been if those rights hadn’t been taken away,” says Ladd.
And it’s not just Ontario — Canada’s labour market has undergone a radical transformation in the last few decades. There has been a massive shift towards precarious work; part-time work, temporary jobs and increasing use of temp agencies and subcontracting have left a significant portion of the Canadian workforce with fewer benefits and less job security, according to Statistics Canada.
A recent study found that 58 per cent of Canadian workers did not have paid sick leave from their employer.
“All of those issues create a very unstable feeling, create a real sense of fear, a real sense that you can’t really speak up because your job is on the line.”
Labour laws mostly fall under the jurisdiction of provinces, and Ladd says “they’ve taken a hands-off approach” and refused to impose regulations on employers that would offer more protection for workers.
Ladd also says during the pandemic, in the absence of provincial actions, local health districts have had to step up. As cases of COVID-19 began to increase in the new year, Toronto and Peel health districts issued orders to partially or fully shut down businesses with five or more cases of COVID-19 and began posting data of workplace outbreaks on their websites.
“What we’ve seen is municipalities really struggling with trying to enforce better protections because the provinces haven’t been doing their job,” says Ladd.
There’s been an outpouring of praise for the people who have continued to go to work in order to keep services — and the economy — running. Even the language we’ve used to identify them has changed. Once low-wage workers, now deemed essential workers. But in most workplaces, there has been no tangible reward for the risk they have assumed over the past year.
Many actions designed to improve working conditions are temporary; some employers have rescinded ‘hero pay’ raises and in Ontario and B.C., workers’ three paid sick days are set to expire in September and December, respectively.
“We have to deal with some of these fundamental systemic issues,” Ladd says.
“What more evidence do you need? How many more people do you need to die or to be infected? There is clear correlation between workplace outbreaks and precarious employment and not having particular labour standards in place, such as paid sick days.”
Who are essential workers?
Just knowing the first three digits of a postal code can likely tell you if someone’s been able to work from home, if they had timely access to a vaccine and their likelihood of getting sick with COVID-19.
A recent study found that 63 per cent of people who live in hot spots are racialized and are four times more likely to be essential workers in manufacturing and utilities and twice as likely to work in trades and transport. They’re also more likely to be low-income earners.
“What we’ve really found is that postal code is code language for the structural determinants of health and these health disparities have long been in place,” says Dr. Andrew Boozary, an expert in social medicine.
He leads a team of researchers at the University Health Network’s Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine Innovation who have been studying hot spots in Toronto and Peel.
Boozary says the data is a wake-up call that essential workers in these neighbourhoods need urgent protection at work and vaccine access, but also that these long-term health disparities can only be addressed by policy changes.
“We’re going to need to see more measures like sick leave, but also living wages come into effect for people who have given everything they have over this past year,” he says.
“To go back and say, ‘Well, you only have a certain value at this time, but after that, it’s back to normal.’ That means we’re going back to accepting that essential workers will continue to have worse health outcomes.”
Not just up to governments
Some employers have taken initiative to improve working conditions and benefits even though the government has not required it.
Early on in the pandemic, Nature’s Path, a family-run organic food manufacturer based in Metro Vancouver, decided to take extra precautions to make sure its employees were safe.
“People were scared to come into work. And we said, ‘Well, what can we do to alleviate that concern to make sure people are safe?’ So we talked to consultants. We talked to experts,” says Arjan Stephens, Nature’s Path’s general manager.
The company rearranged its floor to allow for distancing, and added plexiglass barriers and a computerized screening system that checks employees’ temperature as they walk in the factory.
It offers a now permanent hero pay raise of $2 per hour and increased paid sick leave by two weeks at its four facilities in Canada and the U.S.
It also decided to focus additional efforts on an area of transmission concern – the lunchroom.
Stephens says the company consulted with engineers about new technology to improve ventilation and kill airborne pathogens. It ended up installing far-UVC lights and an air filtration system from Heathe Inc., a U.S. company.
“Because we know that when people have to take off their mask, when they’re sitting down in the lunchroom, that’s also when they’re vulnerable,” Stephens says.
The changes at all four locations cost the company close to US$4 million. But Stephens says it’s been worth it. There has been no workplace transmission at the Canadian facility.
Out of a combined workforce of 700 in the two countries, the company has had 50 employees test positive for COVID-19, but it says the cases were “isolated incidents” contracted outside of work.
“We feel that if we look after our team members, eventually the profits will come,” Stephens says. “A lot of companies where people don’t have this, they’ll come to work sick because they don’t have another option.”
And for those advocating for change, that is key: recognition that the work these people do is essential every day — pandemic or not — and wages and working conditions should reflect that.
“That public consciousness, that awareness of the fact that we need to be concerned about the conditions of the cashier at the grocery store, because if she’s not well, then that affects my health. So I should actually give a damn.”
Ladd says the next test will be whether people will remember the sacrifice essential workers have made over the past year and hold governments accountable.
“We have to do this work. We have no choice because I think otherwise, all of those people who have died and have been impacted, I think we do them a disservice. I think we dishonour them.”