Bosses strug­gling to bal­ance op­er­a­tions with worker con­cerns dur­ing pan­demic

Con­di­tions tougher for staff amid spike in demand for cer­tain goods and ser­vices


Richard thor­oughly wiped down his lift truck early last week at the start of his usual morn­ing shift at Ma­trix Lo­gis­tics Ser­vices Ltd., a pre­cau­tion in the new coro­n­avirus age that he said was crit­i­cized as time-wast­ing by his di­rect su­per­vi­sor.

“Ev­ery­thing runs on time, and they crack the whip if you’re slow,” he said. “But the ma­chines are filthy be­cause they are used 24-7 and, be­cause I am try­ing to keep safe from this virus, I used soap, wa­ter and pa­per tow­els to wipe down my ma­chine be­fore us­ing it. It took a few min­utes.”

Richard spoke to the Fi­nan­cial Post on con­di­tion of anonymity since he would be in di­rect vi­o­la­tion of com­pany pol­icy for talk­ing to the me­dia about the work­place. He said con­di­tions at his non-union­ized ware­house have be­come un­ten­able. In­creas­ingly frus­trated work­ers are be­ing forced to pick up the pace as coro­n­avirus fears spur in­creased demand for cer­tain con­sumer goods.

His ac­count is just one of many tips and emails Post re­porters have re­ceived from both blue- and white-col­lar work­ers about dif­fi­cult work­ing con­di­tions since the coro­n­avirus cri­sis evolved into a full-blown pan­demic. Com­pa­nies are strug­gling to bal­ance their need to keep op­er­at­ing with in­creas­ing worker con­cerns.

That strug­gle will only con­tinue as the num­ber of in­dus­tries al­lowed to keep op­er­at­ing even in “shut­down” prov­inces such as On­tario and Que­bec is quite high. For ex­am­ple, On­tario’s ex­empt list la­bels 74 dif­fer­ent types of busi­nesses as es­sen­tial, even in a state of emer­gency.

The com­plaints range from call-cen­tre em­ploy­ees be­ing forced to work in close con­fines in di­rect vi­o­la­tion of govern­ment-rec­om­mended so­cial-dis­tanc­ing guide­lines, de­liv­ery work­ers not be­ing given ad­e­quate clean­ing and san­i­tiz­ing prod­ucts dur­ing their shifts, and bank em­ploy­ees be­ing forced to do their daily com­mute de­spite hav­ing the abil­ity to work from home.

The com­mon thread in these stories is fear: Em­ploy­ees fear for their health but also, in some cases, their em­ploy­ers. Some are afraid to speak up about prob­lem­atic work con­di­tions be­cause they be­lieve they will lose their jobs or be type­cast as “dif­fi­cult.”

Even though gov­ern­ments are telling Cana­di­ans to hun­ker down and stay home, some em­ploy­ers are urg­ing work­ers to show up on time and work even harder, though some are also of­fer­ing haz­ard pay bonuses, tem­po­rary hourly wage in­creases and im­proved work­place safe­guards.

Ma­trix Lo­gis­tics, which runs an 800-per­son ware­house in Mis­sis­sauga, Ont., and is the ex­clu­sive sup­plier to Shop­pers Drug Mart, said it has in­tro­duced a “paid premium” for em­ploy­ees and will con­tinue to pri­or­i­tize the “health and safety” of staff and cus­tomers. Shop­pers did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

But Richard said the bath­rooms are dirty at his ware­house and peo­ple are sit­ting el­bow to el­bow on long ta­bles fac­ing each other, which goes against so­cial dis­tanc­ing pro­to­cols.

“I have to wear a head­set for my job, and we are short of them so we share head­sets, which are some­times not cleaned be­fore be­ing passed to the next per­son,” he added.

There have been 47 calls in March to On­tario’s Min­istry of Labour to in­ves­ti­gate oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety con­cerns re­lated to work re­fusals, com­pared to 15 for all of Fe­bru­ary; 40 of them con­cerned the coro­n­avirus.

Last Thurs­day, the prov­ince’s Em­ploy­ment Stan­dards Act was amended to in­clude un­paid, job-pro­tected infectious dis­ease emer­gency leave for em­ploy­ees who have ei­ther con­tracted COVID-19 or are in quar­an­tine or iso­la­tion due to em­ployer con­cerns about ex­po­sure, travel-re­lated rea­sons or to pro­vide care for fam­ily mem­bers. Pre­vi­ously, em­ploy­ees were only al­lowed to take three job-pro­tected un­paid sick leave days in a year.

But the im­prove­ment doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily ad­dress work­ers’ fears that they will be pun­ished if they call out what they feel are un­safe con­di­tions or call in sick.

For ex­am­ple, at a Nor­dia call cen­tre in Nanaimo, B.C., that ser­vices Bell Canada En­ter­prises Inc., John (not his real name) said he felt un­safe sit­ting so closely next to a fel­low em­ployee and was told he had the right to go home if he wanted to but wouldn’t get paid for it.

A Nor­dia spokesper­son said em­ploy­ees who don’t feel com­fort­able com­ing into work can elect to stay at home and will not be sub­ject to any dis­ci­plinary ac­tion.

An­other em­ployee at Ma­trix Lo­gis­tics said un­paid leave just doesn’t cut it.

“I would not want to tell my em­ployer I’m sick, be­cause I’m scared they will make me stay at home for 14 days. I can’t af­ford to not get paid for 14 days,” said Faisal (not his real name). “And who knows, they might re­place my shift with some­one else. I might not have a job to come back to.”

This lack of trust be­tween em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers, said Maja Dji­kic, an ex­pert in per­son­al­ity psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, tends to be ex­ac­er­bated dur­ing a se­vere cri­sis.

“If there is al­ready a lack of trust in the cor­po­ra­tion, there is go­ing to be more lack of trust,” she said. “If there is a cul­ture of fear, a re­ally ex­treme sit­u­a­tion is just go­ing to bring about more fear in which ev­ery­one is try­ing to pro­tect them­selves.”

Rob Ch­es­nut, chief ethics of­fi­cer at Airbnb Inc. and author of In­ten­tional In­tegrity: How Smart Com­pa­nies Can Lead An Eth­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion, be­lieves com­pa­nies that have the fi­nan­cial where­withal can sur­vive this cri­sis, so it is un­eth­i­cal to lay some­one off or make them feel bad for tak­ing time off without carefully work­ing through a wide range of po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tives.

“It is a fail­ure of leadership when em­ploy­ees feel they can’t speak up,” he said.

But Sarah Molyneaux, an em­ploy­ment lawyer based in Hamil­ton, Ont., said it’s not that sim­ple in the cur­rent cri­sis. Em­ploy­ees of­ten feel like they can­not speak up be­cause the law is of­ten not set up to ad­dress em­ploy­ees’ con­cerns for their own health.

“All they can re­ally ask for legally is to be treated fairly by their em­ployer if they are sick them­selves with COVID symp­toms or if they have been ex­posed to fam­ily mem­bers sick with the virus,” she said.

Molyneaux added that many non-union­ized em­ploy­ees are “ill-sit­u­ated” to re­ceive fair or eth­i­cal treat­ment if they are sim­ply con­cerned about the risk that they will get in­fected by go­ing into work.

Work­ers Ac­tion Cen­tre, a work­ers-rights group that has long ad­vo­cated for higher min­i­mum wages, in­creased paid sick leave and paid emer­gency leave for work­ers in On­tario, op­er­ates a hot­line for work­ers who feel they are be­ing mis­treated by their em­ploy­ers. The num­ber of COVID-19-re­lated calls has sky­rock­eted over the past few days.

“There is a level of work in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion that we are see­ing in cer­tain sec­tors like clean­ing,” the cen­tre’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Deena Ladd said. “A cleaner was told she had to go back ev­ery sin­gle hour and clean all the door­knobs of an office. She is not get­ting paid for that ex­tra work and she does not want to jeop­ar­dize her job be­cause ev­ery­one around her is los­ing their jobs.”

Dji­kic said in­spi­ra­tional leadership is the abil­ity to take other peo­ple’s in­ter­ests — who are not re­lated to you or not part of your in­ner cir­cle — into ac­count when mak­ing de­ci­sions

“That’s what I’m hop­ing will hap­pen,” she said.

Ev­ery­thing runs on time, and they crack the whip if you’re slow. But the ma­chines are filthy be­cause they are used 24-7.


Work­ers sort out all the personal pro­tec­tive equip­ment re­ceived from China at a ware­house in Va­len­cia, Spain, on Wed­nes­day. Both blue- and white-col­lar work­ers have ex­pressed their fears and frus­tra­tions about dif­fi­cult work­ing con­di­tions since the novel coro­n­avirus cri­sis evolved into a full-blown pan­demic.

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