As COVID-19 cases surge again, a union representing some City of Ottawa workers is calling for more safety measures to be implemented and for employees to keep being allowed to work from home.
The Civic Institute of Professional Personnel (CIPP) is calling for a delay in any return-to-work plan until the full scope and impact of the latest phase of the pandemic has been assessed.
The union sent a letter to city council and met with city officials on April 6 to discuss return-to-work details. According to CIPP, city officials told them the municipality was in the “planning phase” on how to implement a hybrid model once employees come back – something that’s not happening just yet.
Ottawa is still setting records for the amount of coronavirus in its wastewater.
‘Let’s hold off’
“We’re at the height of transmission of this pandemic. We don’t want to contribute further to it. We don’t want to put anyone at risk if we possibly can limit that risk,” said CIPP executive director Peter Bleyer.
“These people are working fine wherever they are currently working. So let’s hold off.”
CIPP represents more than 3,000 city employees in a number of areas, including Ottawa Public Health, emergency services, paramedic services, engineering, wastewater, the IT department, financial services, social services, and community housing.
Some of their members have already been asked to return to the job on a voluntary basis, Bleyer told CBC.
Survey shows wide support
“We’re very concerned. Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our members,” he said.
“And frankly, our members are part of the broader community. And they care as much about the broader community as they care about their own health and safety.”
The union also wants masking and physical distancing requirements reinstated in city workplaces and facilities, as well as enhanced ventilation and air filtration in all workplaces – something Bleyer said would be a positive signal to other employees.
CIPP surveyed its members between April 4 and 6, and of the 40 per cent who responded, roughly three-quarters said they wanted to put off returning to the workplace, given how quickly the COVID-19 signal was rising in Ottawa’s wastewater.
The majority also indicated enhanced safety measures, including better ventilation and air filtration, would make them feel safer.
“Employers have obligations to maintain health and safety for their employees,” Bleyer said. “Our members have expressed to us serious concerns about returning to work at this time. Obviously some type of return to work will be necessary, but there is no reason for that to be rushed.”
City planning ‘multi-phased’ approach
Ontario eased masking restrictions on March 21. Masking is still mandatory for paramedics and anyone inside a city-run long-term care home, shelter or respite center.
The rules also still apply on public transit and at Ottawa Public Health’s vaccination, dental or sexual health clinics, as well as for anyone using their supervised drug consumption services.
In an email to CBC, the city confirmed it is in the process of implementing a multi-phased approach for a hybrid return-to-work model for office workers over the next three months.
Most employees who were working from home continue to do so, the city said, while each department begins developing its plans.
“The City continues to prioritize the health and safety of all employees and will ensure that the implementation of all return-to-work plans take into account the needs of our employees and the ongoing situation with respect to COVID-19,” said Valerie Turner , general manager of innovative client services, in the statement.
In March 2020, the City of Ottawa transitioned 3,000 of its employees to remote work when possible.
However, roughly 75 per cent of employees – more than 16,000 of 19,500 – continued to physically come into the workplace during the pandemic to provide essential services.