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A TTC worker sprays disinfectant during a demonstration of the enhanced cleaning being conducted on TTC buses at the Wilson Yard in North York, Ont. in this file photo from March 3, 2020.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Coronavirus concerns caused a temporary work stoppage by about a dozen Toronto Transit Commission employees into the early hours of Thursday morning, the first work refusal at the agency related to the virus.

Although its effects were short-lived – it delayed the full rollout of the streetcar fleet early Thursday – the employees’ decision to exercise their legal right to refuse work they believe to be unsafe shines a light on the need for transit agencies to prepare for broader labour disruptions.

The TTC and GO, the regional transit agency, play a critical role in keeping the Toronto area moving. The TTC carries about 1.7 million riders on a normal weekday while GO, which has also had work refusals over the virus, carries almost 300,000 daily. Ridership numbers from recent weeks are not available, though, making it unclear whether there have been declines since the outbreak – as has happened in New York, Washington, Seattle and Boston.

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The overnight work refusal at the Roncesvalles streetcar facility was investigated by the provincial Ministry of Labour, which gave the all-clear for employees to return to work, said TTC spokesman Stuart Green.

“The refusal was initiated by a shop steward on behalf of … employees,” he said in an interview. “There was a concern about some work being done to deep clean the streetcars. … It was concern about the cleaning and COVID-19.”

Carlos Santos, president of ATU Local 113, which represents most TTC employees, said in a statement that the refusal was “based on maintaining reasonable precautions” to protect workers.

“The work refusal allowed for stronger standards for workers’ health and safety,” he said. The statement, forwarded by the local’s public relations agency, did not answer a question about whether he anticipated more coronavirus-related work refusals.

Mr. Green said the agency has planned for the possibility of employees refusing to work, though he dismissed questions about how the TTC would deal with major labour disruptions as speculative. In a follow-up e-mail, he laid out the broad brush strokes of a triage planning process that would prioritize the busiest routes.

“We would use a combination of overtime and properly trained staff to deliver as much service as possible,” he wrote. “However, if there were significant reductions in resources, there would be reductions in service in order to keep the most people moving.”

At Metrolinx, which oversees GO Transit, spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said they have had “very, very few” employees refusing to work because of the coronavirus. She said they were not preparing specifically for widespread refusals, but the possibility was covered in the agency’s pandemic planning.

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“Part of our work is to visualize now what it would look like if we had a reduction in our work force because of the pandemic and for whatever reason,” she said.

Ms. Aikins compared this planning to the agency preparing for an ice storm that forces decisions about where to preserve normal service levels and where to run buses and trains less often. For example, a vehicle that would normally come every 20 minutes might instead arrive once or twice an hour.

“If, for whatever reason, you have a 10-per-cent reduction in work force – 15 per cent, 20 per cent – what does that mean to our service? And that’s how they plan,” she said. “It’s not about why you have 10-per-cent less, or why you have 20-per-cent less. Part of pandemic planning is how you handle a reduction of staff.”

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