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The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Retail Council of Canada are among those who say the new guidelines will help alleviate the labour pressures being felt across the country.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

While several business organizations have welcomed looser COVID-19 restrictions announced by some provinces this week, critics say the rocketing number of Omicron variant cases means this is precisely the wrong time to ease rules and potentially jeopardize worker safety.

In recent days, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan have slashed isolation requirements for fully vaccinated, asymptomatic people to five days from 10. All three provinces also rolled back PCR testing for the public outside of “priority populations,” such as health care workers or people living in long-term or personal care.

Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the measures would relieve the burden on employers and the health care system. Saskatchewan’s Premier Scott Moe noted that while cases continue to rise in the province, hospitalizations are declining.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Retail Council of Canada are among those who say the new guidelines will help alleviate the labour pressures being felt across the country. However, Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, said they amount to “playing with fire.”

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the measures will significantly help the staff shortage that many are facing. “Pulling people out for longer than that has huge implications for the labour force.”

According to the Retail Council of Canada, the news is positive for that sector, which it said saw the second-greatest number of job vacancies among all Canadian businesses categories in October.

Adam Legge, president of the Business Council of Alberta, also supports Friday’s move. While the council didn’t specifically request changes to isolation requirements, he said in an e-mail, it’s a “prudent approach” given evidence from around the world that Omicron causes milder health outcomes for vaccinated people.

Some of those against the moves have decried them as ill-motivated. According to Unifor president Jerry Dias, the measures wrongly attempt to solve “deep-rooted, employer-induced crises” in the Canadian job market that have led to the shortages, including low pay and limited workplace training.

“Now is precisely the wrong time to let down our guard,” Mr. Dias said. “Encouraging infected workers back to work, even when they might still be contagious, is a gamble on workers’ lives.”

This joins existing criticism that the CDC guidelines upon which these new measures are based are not rooted in science, according to Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, who said he finds the most-recent announcements deeply troubling.

“I think the CDC buckled to enormous pressure from corporate America, like from airlines,” Mr. Hurley said. “I don’t know that there is actually a ton of reliable science available to us on this.”

Others say implementing the measures could actually create fresh challenges for employers. Rocco Rossi, president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said that since workers will no longer be able to confirm positive cases with free PCR tests, things could become confusing for employers trying to schedule around the five-day isolation period.

“It’s like being told the rules to baseball, but given no bats, no balls and no gloves. You need the instruments to play game,” Mr. Rossi said. “What happens in reality, beyond the theory? It is very much unclear at this point.”

The chamber was told by the government that it would receive more rapid tests to distribute to businesses in January, he added, but it is waiting to hear whether that is still the case.

Meanwhile, employers are taking a variety of approaches to the new rules.

A Home Depot spokesperson said the company will continue to ask employees to isolate for 10 days, instead of the suggested minimum of five, with paid time off.

Sobeys Inc. said it was encouraged to hear of the recommendations, since it is dealing with absenteeism as its employees with symptoms or positive test results stay home.

While no oil companies contacted by The Globe and Mail would comment on whether they support reduced isolation time, some have already implemented vaccination mandates.

That includes Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., whose policy came into effect Dec. 1., and Imperial Oil Ltd., which will require anyone on its Kearl site in Alberta to be double vaccinated starting Feb. 15. In a Dec. 17 online bulletin, the company said that boosters were not required for workers to be considered fully vaccinated, but that it would monitor and follow any public-health recommendations.

Other companies, such as Suncor Energy and Cenovus Energy Inc., are encouraging their employees to get vaccinated, but have shied away from mandates.

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