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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, second left, visits the William Osler Health System - Peel Memorial Centre for Integrated Health and Wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brampton, Ont., on March 26, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Many essential workers – especially those in low-wage, precarious jobs at workplaces that have stayed open – lack access to vaccines and paid time off to get them, even as the third wave of the pandemic worsens.

Other than Saskatchewan, provinces have yet to mandate paid time off to get a vaccine. Most provinces do not offer paid sick leave. Ontario’s government refuses to legislate paid sick days, despite calls from all 34 local medical officers of health to implement the measure. And mobile, on-site vaccination clinics – though promised – have yet to ramp up in workplaces.

Despite a lockdown, a shutdown and now stay-at-home orders, the reality for Ontario’s Peel Region, west of Toronto, is that thousands of essential workers are still on the job. Half of those working in the region’s massive transportation, factory, warehousing and distribution hub, which employs about 300,000 people near the international airport, need to be on-site for work, notes soon-to-be-released research from the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

As cases in Peel have spiked, “government and employers should work together to deploy the vaccine to those who are the most exposed, at their workplaces,” said Marcy Burchfield, vice-president of the board of trade’s Economic Blueprint Institute.

In the Greater Toronto Area especially – where cases, hospitalizations and ICU numbers are climbing – many of those most at risk of on-the-job exposures, such as warehouse workers, fast-food staff, taxi drivers, construction workers and factory workers, lack paid time off and are still waiting for their first jab. Throughout the province, despite the latest restrictions, many of these same workplaces remain operating.

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Change is coming, though not with the urgency or targeted focus many medical experts are calling for. Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have said the next phase of vaccine deployment will include essential workers. Ontario is also prioritizing COVID-19 hot spots. In Alberta, a mass vaccination clinic for workers at Cargill Ltd.’s High River meat-packing operation will start in the coming weeks. And in Toronto, the city is starting a pilot project to bring vaccines to essential workplaces (with no details yet on when it will start nor where).

Amazon, which employs more than 23,000 people in Canada, told The Globe and Mail it sent letters to the premiers of B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec in late March, offering to help in vaccination efforts. It wants to see its essential workers get the vaccine as soon as possible. “We are prepared to leverage our facilities and expertise to assist your vaccination efforts,” it said.

Workers are getting sick on the job. In Ontario alone, there have been 46 workplace fatalities related to COVID-19, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and nearly 20,000 allowed claims, in sectors such as farming, food processing and factories.

The city of Toronto’s recent list of workplace outbreaks shows current or recent cases in food processing (Maple Leaf Foods, Mondelez), manufacturing (Inkas Armored Vehicle Manufacturing), warehousing (Amazon, Hudson’s Bay) and construction (Hardwall Construction Co.).

The Ford government, for its part, says workers have access to paid sick days – through a federal program that pays $500 a week for those eligible. Many doctors and community advocates say the program is inaccessible and causes disruptions in people’s pay.

For low-wage workers, many of whom are immigrants and racialized groups, “while their work was considered essential, their health wasn’t always considered essential during this pandemic,” said Amanpreet Brar, general surgery resident at the University of Toronto’s department of surgery, who has done community outreach on public health to the South Asian community.

She cites truck drivers and taxi drivers as examples of occupations overlooked on the vaccine priority lists. Many truck drivers are going to the United States, into COVID-19 hot spots, and are worried they’ll contract the virus; taxi drivers work in cramped, enclosed spaces and “they’re often picking up passengers from the airport – where literally the [COVID-19] variants enter our country,” Dr. Brar said. “I can’t believe they are not vaccinated yet.”

Co-op Cabs chief executive officer Abdul Mohamoud in Toronto agrees. “Taxi drivers need to be considered essential front-line workers,” he said. “Our drivers transport senior citizens and those with disabilities and other special needs. … Taxi drivers should be given higher priority [for vaccines] so that both their passengers and themselves are safeguarded from COVID-19.”

The Globe reached out to 20 employers in the GTA to ask about workers’ access to vaccines. The majority of those that responded support the idea of on-site vaccination clinics – and paid time off to get a jab.

Purolator Inc.’s Ken Johnston, senior vice-president, people and culture, “most definitely” supports mobile vaccination clinics in the workplace and said the company has already reached out to public-health organizations to discuss accelerating the country’s vaccine campaign. It also supports a move such as Saskatchewan’s to allow for paid time off for vaccines.

At J&J Trailers Manufacturers, many employees were off work in March because of COVID-19. “It was a mess for nearly four weeks,” said general manager Al Abdelmalek. He supports provincially mandated paid time off so staff can get vaccinated. “Let us push hard to get everyone vaccinated, right away,” he said.

Last month, Saskatchewan mandated letting workers take three hours of paid time off work to get a COVID-19 vaccine. B.C. is consulting with business and labour groups over a similar move.

Ontario on Wednesday released a plan to vaccinate adults 18 and older in high-risk areas of Toronto and Peel via mobile and pop-up clinics at workplaces, high-rises and other community hubs, but the announcement lacked key details of when the expansion will start and how people can sign up.

Marty Warren, District 6 director at the United Steelworkers, said it’s crucial to vaccinate workers at their places of employment to stop community spread. “I think the government has failed by not protecting the workers in these essential services,” he said.

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