Top News

Amid COVID-19, companies struggle to balance operations with increasingly fearful workers


Richard thoroughly wiped down his lift truck early last week at the start of his usual morning shift at Matrix Logistics Services Ltd., a precaution in the corornavirus age that he said was criticized as time-wasting by his direct supervisor.

“Everything runs on time, and they crack the whip if you’re slow,” he said. “But the machines are filthy because they are used 24-7 and, because I am trying to keep safe from this virus, I used soap, water and paper towels to wipe down my machine before using it. It took a few minutes.”

Richard (who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity since he would be in direct violation of company policy for talking to the media about the workplace) said conditions at his non-unionized warehouse have become untenable. Increasingly frustrated workers are being forced to pick up the pace as coronavirus fears spur increased demand for certain consumer goods.

His account is just one of many tips and emails Post reporters have received from both blue- and white-collar workers about difficult working conditions since the coronavirus crisis evolved into a full-blown global pandemic as companies struggle to balance their need to keep operating with increasing worker concerns.

That struggle will only continue as the number of industries allowed to keep operating even in “shutdown” provinces such as Ontario and Quebec is quite high. For example, Ontario’s exempt list labels 74 different types of businesses as essential, even in a state of emergency.

The complaints range from call-centre employees being forced to work in close confines in direct violation of government-recommended social-distancing guidelines, delivery workers not being given adequate cleaning and sanitizing products during their shifts, and bank employees being forced to do their daily commute despite having the ability to work from home.

The common thread in these stories is fear: employees fear for their health but also, in some cases, their employers. Some are afraid to speak up about problematic work conditions because they believe they will lose their jobs or be typecast as “difficult.”

Even though governments are telling Canadians to hunker down and stay home, some employers are urging workers to show up on time and work even harder, though some are also offering hazard pay bonuses, temporary hourly wage increases and improved workplace safeguards.

Matrix Logistics, which runs an 800-person warehouse in Mississauga, Ont., and is the exclusive supplier to Shoppers Drug Mart, said it has introduced a “paid premium” for employees and will continue to prioritize the “health and safety” of staff and customers. Shoppers did not respond to a request for comment.

But Richard said the bathrooms are dirty at his warehouse and people are sitting elbow to elbow on long tables facing each other, which goes against social distancing protocols.

“I have to wear a headset for my job, and we are short of them so we share headsets, which are sometimes not cleaned before being passed to the next person,” he added.

There have been 47 calls in March to Ontario’s Ministry of Labour to investigate occupational health and safety concerns related to work refusals, compared to 15 for all of February; 40 of them concerned coronavirus.

Last Thursday, the province’s Employment Standards Act was amended to include unpaid, job-protected infectious disease emergency leave for employees who have either contracted COVID-19 or are in quarantine or isolation due to employer concerns about exposure, travel-related reasons or to provide care for family members. Previously, employees were only allowed to take three job-protected unpaid sick leave days in a year.

But the improvement doesn’t necessarily address workers’ fears that they will be punished if they call out what they feel are unsafe conditions or call in sick.

For example, at a Nordia call centre in Nanaimo, B.C., that services Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., John (not his real name) said he felt unsafe sitting so closely next to a fellow employee and was told he had the right to go home if he wanted to but wouldn’t get paid for it.

A Nordia spokesperson said employees who don’t feel comfortable coming into work can elect to stay at home and will not be subject to any disciplinary action.

Another employee at Matrix Logistics said unpaid leave just doesn’t cut it.

“I would not want to tell my employer I’m sick, because I’m scared they will make me stay at home for 14 days. I can’t afford to not get paid for 14 days,” said Faisal (not his real name). “And who knows, they might replace my shift with someone else. I might not have a job to come back to.”

I would not want to tell my employer I’m sick, because I’m scared they will make me stay at home for 14 days. I can’t afford to not get paid for 14 days

This lack of trust between employees and employers, said Maja Djikic, an expert in personality psychology at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, tends to be exacerbated during a severe crisis.

“If there is already a lack of trust in the corporation, there is going to be more lack of trust,” she said. “If there is a culture of fear, a really extreme situation is just going to bring about more fear in which everyone is trying to protect themselves.”

Rob Chesnut, chief ethics officer at Airbnb Inc. and author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead An Ethical Revolution, believes companies that have the financial wherewithal can survive this crisis, so it is unethical to lay someone off or make them feel bad for taking time off without carefully working through a wide range of potential alternatives.

“It is a failure of leadership when employees feel they can’t speak up,” he said.

It is a failure of leadership when employees feel they can’t speak up

Rob Chesnut

But Sarah Molyneaux, an employment lawyer based in Hamilton, said it’s not that simple in the current crisis. Employees often feel like they cannot speak up because the law is often not set up to address employees’ concerns for their own health.

“All they can really ask for legally is to be treated fairly by their employer if they are sick themselves with COVID symptoms or if they have been exposed to family members sick with the virus,” she said.

Molyneaux added that many non-unionized employees are “ill-situated” to receive fair or ethical treatment if they are simply concerned about the risk that they will get infected by going into work.

Workers Action Centre, a workers-rights group that has long advocated for higher minimum wages, increased paid sick leave and paid emergency leave for workers in Ontario, operates a hotline for workers who feel they are being mistreated by their employers. The number of COVID-19-related calls has skyrocketed over the past few days.

“There is a level of work intensification that we are seeing in certain sectors like cleaning,” the centre’s executive director Deena Ladd said. “A cleaner was told she had to go back every single hour and clean all the doorknobs of an office. She is not getting paid for that extra work and she does not want to jeopardize her job because everyone around her is losing their jobs.”

Djikic said inspirational leadership is the ability to take other people’s interests — who are not related to you or not part of your inner circle — into account when making decisions

“That’s what I’m hoping will happen,” she said.

Financial Post

• Email: vsubramaniam@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

Recent Stories