For Jason Watts, social distancing isn’t as easy as working from home and staying two metres away from others.
Mr. Watts works as a bus driver for the Toronto Transit Commission. His shifts are up to 10 hours long and involve regular exposure to the public. Although social distancing has caused ridership in Mr. Watts’s vehicles to fall significantly, he’s still the main point of contact for customers boarding at the front of the bus.
“Recently, I had a guy coughing up near my area,” Mr. Watts said. “You’re letting your mind race. I have a family. I’ve got three boys at home, a wife. I want to bring home the bacon. I don’t want to bring home a pathogen.”
Stress and anxiety are rising among staff who work customer-facing jobs, which include customer service representatives, drivers and retail workers. Many of their jobs cannot be done from home. The result is increasingly strained relations between employees and their supervisors.
On March 18, after days of petitioning, the TTC lifted a ban preventing drivers like Mr. Watts from wearing masks on the job if they choose. But many other workers, such as those in grocery stores, continue to work unprotected.
According to Toronto employment lawyer Ryan Edmonds, the conditions of most grocery stores are likely to be deemed safe for work. “The challenge that the average grocery store worker will have is that, by nature of their workplace, there's an inherent risk of exposure,” he says. “The standard is not an absolute guarantee that there is zero risk of infection.”
Mr. Edmonds said efforts by employers to increase cleaning and disinfection of the workplace, as well as making hand sanitizer readily available, would likely be sufficient for a health and safety inspection. He also recommends employers increase bathroom breaks so that staff can wash their hands more frequently.
But if such hygiene measures aren’t in place, and staff feel their work environments are putting their health and safety at risk, Mr. Edmonds reassures staff that they can’t be reprimanded or fired for addressing this with their supervisor. “There can be no retaliation for an employee who seeks to enforce their rights under the Occupational Health and Safety Act,” he said.
According to Arif Jetha, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a scientist at the Institute for Work and Health, the challenge facing many front-line workers is that they aren’t used to voicing their concerns.
“They might not feel like they have the power within their workplace to raise an issue if they feel that their safety is under threat,” says Dr. Jetha. “It’s often that the vulnerable workers feel less empowered to speak up.”
Instead, Dr. Jetha said that supervisors should be empathetic toward their employees and encourage them to speak up. This allows staff to come up with “creative accommodations” to address the concerns of workers. “In a grocery store context, that may mean a worker with a pre-existing health condition is not customer-facing,” says Dr. Jetha. “It could mean that maybe they’re stocking shelves, they’re working in the back.”
Mr. Edmonds believes that we may see grocery store workers being allowed to wear personal protective equipment like masks. “I wouldn't be surprised that that is one of the discussions going on,” he says.
In addition, workers that need to take leave because of personal illness or health conditions aren’t required to disclose the reasons to their employers.
“They don’t have to reveal that they’re HIV positive or anything like that,” Mr. Edmonds says. “They could just say they are invoking their right under one of the protected leaves of absence. Then they can apply for and receive EI [employment insurance] benefits. They will keep their job and they can’t be terminated or disciplined as a result.”
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