Michelle is a municipal parks worker in rural Ontario. Despite having what many would consider a “good government job,” she is witnessing a complete failure on the part of management to effectively protect the health and safety of her and her coworkers. With no hand sanitizer or physical distancing protocols, Michelle and her coworkers are left to teach themselves about the virus and act accordingly. Michelle’s experience illustrates how employers’ emphasis on the bottom line can override health and safety considerations, and how workers in all sectors must take action to protect themselves during this crisis, while also demanding more from local governments.
Can you describe how your working conditions have changed since the pandemic in terms of hours, pace of work, conduct of your boss / manager and in relation to health and safety.
Nothing has changed; it is business as usual! We were told we can’t ride in a pick-up truck together, but everyone does because it’s not feasible otherwise. The roads department are running two eight-hour shifts with an hour in between so no one comes in contact with each other.
When did you start feeling the impact of COVID-19 at your workplace?
M: Last week, I feel like anyone who was watching the news or local radio knew that something was going to happen. I went into stores and realized there were no hand sanitizers or nothing. When I went to work on Thursday I mentioned to my coworkers and boss that there is no hand sanitizer anywhere; maybe we should look into that? Everyone kind of laughed at me and said, “that’s not going to happen!” Now all shit has broken loose, everyone is in high stress mode and desperately searching for hand sanitizer! They [our managers] were instructed to use bottles of bleach and water; and that is what we are using!
How are your coworkers reacting to this?
My lead hand is older and has been a heavy smoker his whole life. He has early emphysema and has put in over thirty years working for the town. Once he learned about this [the virus], he began asking the town if they were going to lay off the staff. He has now actually been forced to retire early and was talking with the town all last week about how we all need to be laid off. I guess he figured he could be a martyr for the rest of us.
Were you and your coworkers given any instruction on what to do if you fall ill? Specifically, are they offering additional paid sick time?
Yeah, the protocol is that we take our sick days. We have six paid sick days and if we go over those, then we are kind of SOL. They told us that this would be over in two weeks and expect that we should all be taking our holiday time because we get between two to four weeks of holidays. They assume we can take a week off, self-isolate for two weeks, and then should be good to go! Nobody has told us anything about symptoms. We have been looking into generic shit from Health Canada; they are not even sending it [information] to employees. The information is being sent to management who are supposed to tell us, but they are not doing it because they’re like “oh this is not pertinent.”
Are you unionized?
We are not unionized but other departments are. I asked my department head the other day what the plan is and they have no plan for us; there is zero plan in place. I did reference the new guidelines in place about labour law changes regarding COVID-19 and employer responsibilities. She [department head] did not seem too concerned, but then I spent the rest of my day making MSD (Material Safety Data) sheets for every chemical in our shop… I felt it was part punishment, but also an attempt to update a health and safety board that hasn’t been updated in over a decade. We did a lot of health and safety stuff yesterday out of the blue because I think they are afraid!
How do you feel about having to work during the pandemic?
Personally, I’m ok with it because I recognize that there are certain precautions I can take and for the most part we are not involved with the general public. With that being said, we are in close contact with each other and there are no guidelines, nothing.
Given the fact that you are working during this global lethal pandemic, what do you think this says about your job?
It says that our bosses are only worried about the bottom line, which for some reason never crossed my mind because we are a municipality. I always thought of our work as being community-based, but at the end of the day there is no job security, and I still have to appreciate that I am lucky enough to have a job. It’s disappointing and if it’s so bad here, I can’t imagine what people are going through in the private sector.
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