Essential workplaces list leads to confusion, frustration among some businesses

Essential workplaces list leads to confusion, frustration among some businesses

As the Ford government has released the list of essential businesses that will be allowed to maintain regular function during the COVID-19 pandemic, some are asking for more time to wind down, while some labour leaders are pleading for their industries to be taken off the list.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce says its members have faced some confusion about what they're allowed to do, as many companies operate in multiple provinces and U.S. states, all with varying levels of shutdowns, OCC President Rocco Rossi said.

"We have a large manufacturer who operates internationally, but in the U.S. and in Canada has far greater clarity from the state of Ohio [about] exactly what lines, what devices [can operate], and basically is getting pushback from their lawyers here, because they're not sure if they fit or not, precisely, and they don't want to run any significant liability in making that choice," he said.

More national co-ordination on what should stay open or shut down would help, Rossi said.

Rossi added that although everyone wants to do their part, the order is tough to comply with for smaller businesses that are less automated and thus struggle with the switch to work from home. Those businesses need a few more days to comply with the order, he said.

Rossi also called on the provincial and federal governments for more wage supports for businesses, so the economy can start moving quickly after the crisis, instead of companies having to lay off workers and then rehire them. He said the current 10 per cent wage subsidy is nowhere near enough, saying "north of 50" per cent is needed.

University of Toronto business professor Richard Powers called that suggestion "unwarranted."

"All we're doing is we're increasing our taxes down the road. We've got to pay for this somehow, right?" he said.

The harsh reality of the virus means that some small- and medium-sized businesses just won't recover, and there's not much the the public can do to help aside from self-isolating so life returns to normal as soon as possible, Powers said.

He added that he was pleased at how broad Ontario's essential workplaces list was, calling it a "very measured approach."

"But you take a look at that list, it still leaves a lot of room for a lot of people to be on the front lines, possibly being exposed to the virus," he said.

That's why some construction unions are calling on the province to shut them down.

Currently, the province is allowing construction work in the "industrial, commercial, institutional and residential sectors."

“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations and they can have hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other,” Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC) Executive Director Phil Gillies said in a release. “This is contrary to the best advice of public health officials to maintain social distancing.”

The OCC — along with leaders in the Carpenters' District Council of Ontario (CDCO) and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) — is asking for a 14-day suspension of work on construction sites in the province.

Minimum safety standards for COVID-19 "simply do not exist on most of our jobsites," CDCO treasurer Tony Iannuzzi said.

Bruno Mandic, the business manager of IUPAT District Council 46, said it's "impossible" to continue to work while following public health instruction.

"If you’re on the 20th or 50th floor of a building working, the only way to get there is by elevator and there’s no social distancing," he said.

At the beginning of his Tuesday press conference, Premier Doug Ford explained his decision to keep construction sites open.

"What may not seem essential to downtown Toronto or urban areas may be essential to rural Ontario. And the same goes for the other way around," he said.

Thousands of Ontarians are waiting on homes that are "days or weeks away from completion," he added.

Ford said there are currently dozens of provincial inspectors at "numerous large jobsites" to make sure new guidelines for construction during the pandemic, including heightened hygiene rules, are followed.

"These inspectors will not hesitate to shut sites down," he said. "Let me be clear: if the industry does not take every step necessary to look after their workers, I will shut them down.”

University of Toronto civil engineering professor Tamer El-Diraby said construction in Ontario can be separated into two groups: essential, meaning repairs to crucial infrastructure like water mains or power lines — and non-essential, meaning areas like home-building and new construction.

Shutting down the former type of work could obviously come with disastrous results, but for preventing crews from working on new homes, "the consequence of delaying them is typically economic," El-Diraby said.

If that happens, developers might suffer some financial losses, but workers would be able to self-isolate at home.

Instead of a "blanket" approval, El-Diraby suggested developers could apply individually to the province to continue work, so as not to strand homeowners waiting on the final touches of their new homes.

El-Diraby also cast doubt on whether additional inspectors would be enough to ensure worker safety.

"On paper, the inspection system should work. But I think, pragmatically, there will be contractors and groups of labourers who may not be able to 100 per cent practice that physical distancing," he said, noting that there will likely be far too many jobsites to fully patrol.

Jack Hauen


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