On the National Day of Mourning, AFL releases 10-point plan to protect Alberta workers and help end the pandemic
EDMONTON - Every year, workers come together on April 28, the National Day of Mourning, to mourn friends, family members and co-workers who have been lost as a result of workplace illness and injuries. This year, unions in Alberta, and across the country, are shining a light on the human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic in the workplace.
“Jason Kenney and his UCP government have gone to great lengths to deny that the virus is being spread in Alberta workplaces,” says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“But this Day of Mourning, we have to speak truth to power. And the truth is that COVID-19 is a workplace issue. It’s a workplace issue because of the stress and anxiety that frontline workers have been dealing with since the beginning of the pandemic. And it’s a workplace issue because, as a result of the arrival more transmissible variants of the virus, workplaces have become a key driver of infection. We won’t be able to get a handle on the third wave, and we won’t be able to keep working Albertans safe, until the government acknowledges this fact and takes action on it.”
McGowan says that COVID-19 has become a leading cause of occupational disease in Alberta. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Workers Compensation Board has acknowledged that at least 6,000 workers contracted COVID-19 in their workplaces. But McGowan says that is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
“We’re convinced that many of the cases that the government has been attributing to ‘community transmission’ were actually acquired in the workplace,” says McGowan. “The emerging scientific consensus is that COVID-19 is spread by tiny aerosol particles that can hang in the air of indoor environments, including workplaces, for hours. That means that many workplaces are actually much more dangerous than we’ve been led to believe, especially in the context of the more contagious variants.”
In response to both the emerging science on aerosol transmission and the surging infection rate in the province, the AFL has released a 10-point plan calling on the Kenney government to explicitly recognize COVID-19 as a workplace hazard that can lead to serious illness and even death. Among other things, the Federation is also calling for other measures including mandated and enforceable standards for PPE and proper ventilation in indoor work environments.
“The government simply has to stop pretending that COVID-19 is not being spread in Alberta workplaces. Just look at what’s happening in schools, grocery stores, food processing facilities and oil and gas work camps. If the government continues to ignore the science and deny reality, we’re going to be mourning even larger numbers of worker illnesses and deaths next year.”
Director of Communications, AFL
Day of Mourning pandemic blueprint:
10-Point Plan to Get Serious About COVID in Alberta Workplaces
The Situation in Alberta
- Alberta currently has, by far, the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in Canada (455 per 100,000 people). In comparison, Ontario – where hospitals are overwhelmed – has a rate of 279 active cases per 100,000 people.
- This week, Alberta surpassed 20,000 active cases – the highest number since the pandemic began. More transmissible variants of the virus now make up more than 65 per cent of active cases.
- The rate of test positivity is now regularly exceeding 11 per cent, the highest level since the pandemic began. Experts says this indicates there are many undiagnosed cases in the province.
- The number of COVID-19 patients in Alberta hospitals and ICUs is climbing steadily and is expected to soon exceed the peak of the second wave.
- As a result of surging cases, our provincial contact tracing system has started to break down and fall behind. This will accelerate the spread of the virus.
The Situation in Alberta workplaces
- Schools are venues for student learning, but they are also workplaces. This week more than 30 percent of all schools in the province reported active outbreaks. Over the past month, hundreds of students and staff have been infected and thousands have had to isolate.
- The number of active cases in the Fort McMurray area (1361 case per 100,000 people) is higher than any region in both Canada and the United States. These numbers are being driven by unprecedented outbreaks at more than a dozen oil sands facilities and work camps.
- Hundreds of grocery stores in the province have had at least one outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic. There have been more than 90 outbreaks in grocery stores and pharmacies in the last week alone.
- In addition to schools, oil sands facilities and grocery stores, outbreaks are occurring in many other Alberta workplaces, including: meat-packing plants, warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing plants, food processing plants, hospitals, group homes and long-term and continuing care facilities.
- The governments of Ontario and British Columbia have acknowledged that workplace transmission is a key driver of the third wave. In contrast, the Alberta government continues to deny or downplay workplace transmission.
- The Peel Public Health Authority in Ontario recently reported that out of 8,000 workers who tested positive for COVID-19 in the region, 2,000 went to work while they were sick because they didn’t have paid sick leave and could not afford to stay home. There is no reason to believe the situation would be any different in Alberta. In fact, given the fact that fewer Albertans have access to paid sick leave than workers in Ontario, the situation is almost certainly worse here in our province.
- At the beginning of the pandemic, experts said COVID-19 was likely transmitted by droplets that would eventually fall to the ground. This is where the public health guidance about maintaining 2m of physical distance came from. However, the emerging scientific consensus is that COVID-19 is more often spread by tiny particles, called aerosols, that can hang in the air in indoor environments for hours.
- This new scientific evidence has significant implications for safety in indoor workplaces. It means that physical distancing and common surgical masks are not enough. It also helps explain why indoor workplaces like schools, meat-packing plants and work camps have become such hot spots for transmission.
The Kenney government’s response
- This week, the Kenney government had an opportunity to follow the lead of other provinces by implementing stricter public health measures – but, instead, they chose to do nothing.
- At news conferences on Monday and Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said that Albertans are suffering from “COVID fatigue” and that, as a result, they would likely ignore any new public health measures introduced by the government – so, in effect, it wasn’t worth even trying.
- Kenney also made it clear that he’s relying on the vaccines to beat the variants – even though experts have warned that it will be months before enough Albertans are vaccinated to end the pandemic in the province, and that in the meantime, thousands of Albertans will get sick and some will die without stricter public health measures.
- Kenney even suggested that we can rely on “natural immunity” to help reach the goal of ending the pandemic in the province. Experts have debunked and decried these kinds of “herd immunity” strategies as ineffective and immoral.
- In other words, Kenney and his government have abandoned all pretense of “following the science.”
If there is any good news in this bleak situation it’s that a consensus has emerged among medical and policy experts about what needs to be done. With this consensus in mind, the Alberta Federation of Labour is calling on the Alberta government to immediately take the following steps to keep Albertans safe in the workplace and end the third wave of the pandemic.
Embrace a zero COVID strategy – Experience from around the world and from Canada’s own Atlantic provinces clearly shows that the best way to both keep the public safe and protect the economy is to drive infection rates to as close to zero as possible. Trying to maintain “acceptable” levels of COVID, as the Alberta government has done, simply leads to a continuing roller coaster of pandemic waves. We need to completely extinguish the embers – and that means a temporary lock down (with financial support for workers and businesses) of all but the most essential workplaces. As we did successfully in the first wave, we need to pay people to stay home and businesses to close until the viral chains of transmission of been severed.
Paid Sick Leave – The pandemic has exposed many holes in Canada’s social and economic policy framework. One of the most glaring holes has to do with sick leave. Public health authorities repeatedly tell people to stay home when they’re sick. But the reality is that about two-thirds of Alberta workers don’t have access to paid sick leave – so many of them feel they have no choice but to go to work even if they’re not feeling well. As a matter of public health and workplace safety, employer-paid sick leave must be made available to all workers.
Recognize COVID-19 as a workplace hazard – Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UCP government has gone to great lengths to deny that COVID-19 is being spread in Alberta workplaces. This needs to stop. Especially with the arrival of more transmissible variants, COVID has become a leading cause of occupational disease in Alberta. Formal recognition of this fact is the first step towards mitigating the risk for Alberta workers.
Mandate better PPE – Given the fact that COVID can be spread by tiny aerosols hanging in the air of indoor workplaces – and that with the new variants, it can take as few as ten particles to cause infection – the government needs to establish enforceable standards for appropriate PPE in all indoor workplaces.
Mandate proper ventilation – In a similar vein, based on the science on the aerosol transmission of COVID, the government needs to establish enforceable standards for ventilation in all indoor workplaces. All employers must be required to monitor indoor air quality, ensure adequate air exchange and install HEPA filters capable of filtering particles that could carry the virus.
Temporarily close workplaces with outbreaks – It’s hard to believe, but since the beginning of the pandemic, the Alberta government has not mandated the closure of any major private-sector workplaces in the province. Even in the case of the record outbreak at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, the government waited for the company, under pressure from the union and the media, to close the plant itself. The Alberta government, especially the Labour Department, is responsible for workplace health and safety. They need to abandon their hands-off approach and follow the lead of BC, which has been imposing temporary closure orders on workplaces with significant outbreaks. In the public sector, the government needs to bite the bullet and mandate the temporary closure of all K-12 schools. Reality needs to trump politics and talking points.
Vaccination Priority for Essential Workers – The guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, is clear. It explicitly says that the second wave of vaccinations should include first responders, like police officers and firefighters; staff of congregate living facilities, like group homes; and front-line essential workers who cannot work virtually. The NACI defines frontline workers as anyone having direct close physical contact with the public. That clearly includes all education staff in our schools and people working in grocery stores. It is completely unacceptable that the Kenney government is ignoring this guidance.
Set up vaccination clinics in COVID-19 hotspots, including workplaces – Alberta is an outlier among provinces when it comes to setting up mobile vaccination clinics in hotspots. Both Ontario and BC have set up clinics in neighbourhoods and workplaces dealing with significant outbreaks. This week, after a few false starts, the Alberta government will begin vaccinations in meat-packing plants. But a similar approach needs to be taken in other workplaces dealing with significant outbreaks. This includes oil sands work camps, grocery stores, warehouses, manufacturing facilities … and schools.
Reduce class sizes – Given the realities of aerosol transmission and the fact that schools have clearly become significant drivers of COVID transmission, the government has to stop pretending that it’s safe to continuing packing 30-40 students in classrooms around the province. Resources need to be mobilized to cut class sizes in half.
- Enforce the rules – When it comes to crime, conservatives are the first to say that rule-breakers need to face consequences. But, when it comes to health and safety rules and the protection of workers, conservative parties, like the UCP, turn into softies, arguing for “education” and “consultation” rather than fines and legal action. This needs to change – especially in the context of the pandemic. Public health directives need to be seen as rules, not guidelines. Employers need to be aggressively policed to ensure that they’re in compliance, and they need to face consequences if they’re not.