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After getting off a bus, workers head for their jobs at the Amazon Fulfillment centre in Brampton, Ont., on May 11, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Gagandeep Kaur remembers how bad things got for essential workers in Brampton during the Delta wave of COVID-19 last year. But at least Peel Public Health had kept an eye out for workplace outbreaks.

“Just the fact that they were showing up regularly for inspections meant a lot. Warehouse workers often can’t speak up without the fear of punishment [from employers]. They rely on external help,” said Ms. Kaur, an organizer for the Warehouse Workers Centre.

A new wave of COVID-19 infections, driven largely by the Omicron variant, has emerged in Brampton and the rest of Peel Region. As the region tackles the Omicron variant, Peel Public Health indicated it does not have the resources to tackle workplace outbreaks.

How this Brampton community explains Canada’s COVID-19 crisis like no other

During the Delta wave last year, the health authority ordered three Amazon facilities to shut down in Brampton after massive outbreaks. More than 600 Amazon employees had caught the virus last year. Other work sites across Peel were also shut down because of these workplace outbreaks.

Peel Public Health, in response to a question from The Globe and Mail, said, “Currently, Peel Public Health has limited capacity to support workplace outbreak investigations, unless they are in high-risk settings, as defined in the most recent provincial guidance on case, contact and outbreak management.”

Lawrence Loh, Peel’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, added that the region was going to focus on high-risk settings such as hospitals, congregate living settings, schools and child-care centres. Large work sites did not feature in Peel’s list of high-risk settings.

Gurratan Singh is the NDP MPP for Brampton East. His riding includes the L6P area code, which had the highest rate of per capita infections in Ontario until June, 2021. He said this reflects how Peel Public Health was trying to do the best it could with limited resources.

“It’s really devastating to hear the impact of COVID-19 on Brampton. Peel has been chronically underfunded across the board. We don’t get our fair share. The fact that Peel Public Health does not have the resources to investigate workplaces demonstrates the lack of funding we’re getting from the [provincial] Conservative government,” he said.

Mr. Singh said Dr. Loh and his team were instrumental in pulling up big-box stores such as Amazon.

On Tuesday, Amazon responded with a statement: “The health and safety of our employees is always our top priority. We’ve maintained strict COVID-19 protocols since the start of the pandemic, including investing $15-billion globally in safety and protection measures, and we’ll keep doing that in the months and years ahead. This includes an investment of over $1.2-billion on measures like active screening, masks, gloves, enhanced cleaning, testing and more.

“We’re following all Peel Public Health guidelines, including providing approved medical grade three-layer masks, and we’ve hosted numerous vaccination clinics for our employees and residents of Peel Region.”

According to Ms. Kaur, intervention from the provincial government and Peel Public Health is needed now. She said that while Amazon had put in place measures, such as staggered shifts and physical distance between work stations, there is no way to tell whether large employers are keeping up their standards. “I highly doubt that employers are taking all the precautions they need to without inspections by health authorities. It [inspections] was a big stick that kept them in line.”

Another demographic that activists are worried about are truck drivers, since the trucking industry is one of the largest employers in Brampton. Ravish Garg sanitizes his truck thoroughly before and after his trips. On his regular route between Toronto and Chicago, he stops only to eat or use the restroom on the 825-kilometre drive.

“I haven’t changed my habits since the pandemic began. But now I feel a little worried because even two doses of the vaccine can’t help me. I will do what I can to keep myself safe, if I get sick there’s nothing I can do,” said Mr. Garg, a resident of Brampton’s L6P area code.

The William Osler Health System, which runs Brampton Civic Hospital and Etobicoke General, reported 12 COVID-19 patients on Dec. 22. On Jan. 5, it reported 105, with seven patients in intensive-care units. Last Tuesday, Peel Region including Brampton reported 1,435 new cases overall – second in the province only to Toronto.

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When provincial restrictions announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford went into effect last week, it did not affect Mr. Garg’s work. Like thousands of other essential workers in Brampton, he still has to step out of his house to work. “We don’t have the option of working from home,” Mr. Garg said.

In many cases, employers have had to arrange testing kits for their employees. Before Christmas, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said the city would buy testing kits for all city employees. But procuring kits and face masks has proven hard for most businesses.

Paramjit Singh, who runs a safety and compliance consultancy in Brampton and works largely with the trucking industry, said there is very little regulation to catch errant employers even though Peel Public Health has issued guidelines.

“In most work settings, workers have to worry about their own safety. Many businesses don’t provide basics like KN95 masks. Those companies that want to do their best have very little access to PPE [personal protective equipment] and testing kits. Businesses are going to need help from the province to pull this off, they can’t do it on their own,” he said.

Nahar Aujla, the Workers’ Action Centre organizer in Peel, said the protection of essential workers is key to stopping the spread in the community. “Many of Brampton’s essential workers live in multigeneration households. They go back and interact with their parents and grandparents.”

Ms. Kaur said gig workers are at particularly high risk, too. “People who work in the gig economy, like Uber drivers and delivery agents, are not covered under the Employment Standards Act. They put their health at risk so that people who work from home can have things delivered to them in lockdown.”

Mr. Singh the MPP said, “Folks in Brampton are doing their best to fight COVID-19. We are a city of essential workers who don’t have the choice to work from home. In fact, because they go to work, others can work from home.”

The MPP said the best way forward was for the province to establish a permanent sick leave. “People shouldn’t have to choose between going to work sick and choosing to pay the bills.”

During a briefing in June last year, Mr. Brown said the average age of the essential worker in Brampton was 36. The two age groups that have driven the infections in Peel are the 20-to-29 and 30-to-39 age groups. And yet, these age groups may struggle to get their booster doses in the coming weeks.

When eligibility for boosters was expanded to include everyone above the age of 18, more than a million people became eligible. Dr. Loh said the demand for boosters was high and he encouraged younger residents of Peel to wait their turn if they could.

While boosters are being seen as a way out of this current wave, some workers aren’t convinced. Mr. Garg, the truck driver, said, “If two shots can’t help me, I’m not sure three will. At this point, I’ll take my chances and try to be as safe as possible. At least I don’t live with my parents, so I can’t infect them.”

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