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Ontario Employers Say These Workers Are ‘Essential.’ But The Employees Disagree.

A doctor has shared more than a hundred anonymous stories from frustrated workers.

A family employed by a carpet business without mandatory mask policies. A retail employee questioning if the “stretchy black pants” they sell are necessary. Those working on film and TV crews, in car dealerships, and dozens with jobs done solely on laptops.

These are just some of the anonymous Ontarians whom Dr. Yoni Freedhoff has featured in a viral Twitter thread, united by a common problem: Their employers say they’re “essential” workers who need to be onsite to do their jobs, but the employees themselves disagree.

As of Thursday, Ontario’s latest lockdown rules restrict trips outside to those done for essential purposes, like work and buying food. The provincial definition of what qualifies as essential work were expanded in a guidance document sent by premier Doug Ford’s office.

This wording of “essential work” is different from prior government-mandated designations of essential service workers. The latter are defined by the national government as workers who “are considered critical to preserving life, health and basic societal functioning.” Health-care workers and people who work for utilities like hydro and gas are essential service workers.

“Employers of these workers should take all possible steps to protect their health and safety by implementing practices and procedures recommended by public health authorities and providing appropriate protective equipment and products,” Public Safety Canada states in a guidance document. What’s more, it urges employers to let essential workers stay home and work remotely when possible.

Each province and territory treats these workers differently and may dispense benefits like free child-care; Ontario recently expanded their list of eligible essential service workers who would reap that particular perk.

On the other hand, some essential work in Ontario under this new stay-at-home order isn’t necessarily done only by workers who provide the aforementioned essential services. These workers falls under an arbitrary decision by an employer who deems an employee’s presence in a physical workplace essential to doing their job.

“The stay-at-home order does not define what work or jobs are essential. Rather, it now mandates that anyone who can work from home must now do so,” the provincial FAQ states, before giving one example: “Someone working in retail obviously can’t do their job from home and would be permitted to go to work.”

Watch: Ontario issues stay-at-home order amid COVID-19 surge. Story continues below.

This vagueness has been criticized for confusing the public, with advocates telling the Toronto Star that employers are using the lack of clarity to interpret the stay-at-home order at their own discretion, much to staff’s frustration when their jobs can be done from home, or were previously in work-from-home roles in earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedhoff had shared more than 100 anecdotes at the time of publication, with plenty more in his inbox waiting for him to get to.

Many complaints he’s tweeted are from people who have desk jobs that require only a computer and can easily be done at home.

Others are from specific sectors, like the film industry, who question why their entertainment-based profession is considered essential work.

It’s possible to shoot a production with safety measures and with legal clearing for expanded group gatherings. Film producers can apply for exemptions to Ontario’s limit of 10 performers on set at a time, just like any business could hire a lawyer and challenge the rules, said Alistair Hepburn, director of independent and broadcast production at the Toronto chapter of Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).

However, Hepburn told HuffPost Canada that most productions are making it work within the 10-performer limit.

“Everything is going really well … [Being on set] feels safer than going to the grocery store.”

He said that after months stuck at home during the pandemic’s first wave, ACTRA members just want to be working.

Others, like Freedhoff, are of the opinion that these safety measures aren’t enough.

“Regardless of how many tests are conducted, if not acted upon, they aren’t particularly helpful,” he said.

The fact that Freedhoff has received an outpouring of examples of employees feeling unsafe is “unsurprising” for the doctor.

“If employers are given the discretion to decide for themselves if they’re essential, many are going to state that they are even when they’re decidedly not,” he told HuffPost Canada.

HuffPost Canada asked Ontarians to share their work experiences. Here’s what they had to say. All shared their frustrations anonymously, in fear of retaliation from employers. One, who was laid off from work after questioning their employer’s open status, withdrew their comments out of fear that even speaking vaguely would land them in legal trouble.

For many, preferential treatment among colleagues ran rampant in their workplaces because their bosses had final say on defining “essential work.” Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity:

Telecommunications worker, 24

“My employer let me work from home, but my coworkers are stuck in-office as they are still on probation. Our jobs can be done from home.”

Works in medical manufacturing unrelated to COVID-19, 27

“I get routinely summoned to my office to sign records for trainings that were done over Microsoft teams, for work that I do digitally. My company spent a few months looking into e-signatures, but the only ones allowed to use those are management so far.”

“It makes me feel that my life is not valued to my employer.”

- Anonymous

Law clerk, 39

“When the numbers started spiking in fall, we had people asking to work from home. One co-worker was flat out told no, she had to come in. Meanwhile, a significant majority of the office’s senior lawyers have been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s created some animosity between the bosses and the workers.

“When we were closed over the holidays, we received an email ordering us to be in-office on Jan. 4. That Monday, almost 20 people were in the office. Almost all of us could have worked from home. I had to take the bus to get in, further increasing my exposure, because I can’t afford to pay for parking. It makes me feel that my life is not valued to my employer.

“I know my law firm isn’t the only one insisting everyone be present in the office. I also know that there are law firms that have been working remotely since the beginning of the pandemic.

“My biggest advice for employers is to be mindful that once this pandemic ends, your employees will remember the risks you put them in their families in.

“I myself am beginning the search for a job with a firm that does not put me and my family in unnecessarily risky situations such as this.”

Public library worker, 34

“Certain things, like answering phone calls, processing returns and checkouts, and collection upkeep, require staff to be in the library. As well, any staff with “public service” in their job description must report to work; so librarians, front desk staff, and the like.

“The thing is, curbside pickup ― the only service we are able to offer the public right now ― does not require all staff present in order to man it. We can easily do it with half our staff.

“It would be safest if we worked half our week from home, and half at the branch. Ideally in the same ‘cohort,’ as I hear some retailers are doing.

“That way, we are only exposed to half the amount of staff, instead of the full compliment coming into the library every day.

“During this closure, we spend much of our time doing admin work and trainings on our computers. This can all be done from home. Management is working from home, so I am not sure how much they are aware of this, though I think it would be obvious.”

A library worker says working in an alternating cohort, or a fixed group of colleagues, for in-branch shifts would be safest.
ela bracho via Getty Images
A library worker says working in an alternating cohort, or a fixed group of colleagues, for in-branch shifts would be safest.

Freelance designer, 28

“My partner and most of my friends are working in architecture. A ton of firms have justified staying open en masse by deciding they’re essential under the Reopening Ontario Act’s essential category of ‘construction.’ Which is very weird, as architecture firms aren’t working onsite and don’t clearly fit the category.

“The recent ‘Bosses can declare you essential’ thing has complicated this somewhat; a lot of the firms that remained open under previous lockdowns have since closed, but my partner’s boss has insisted they keep coming in. The boss made the private justification that managing at-home work was quite difficult. They then made a more public justification that didn’t mention that management issue that at all, instead relying on a misinterpretation of the provincial Architects Act.

“It is, quite frankly, insane, and we have no idea how to act against it at this point, because the new regulations just seem to leave it in the boss’ hands entirely.”

With files from Emma Paling

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