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OPSEU submission to Treasury Board Secretariat on Ontario jobs and recovery consultation

We the North
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Introduction

We respectfully present the Ontario Public Service Employees Union’s (OPSEU) contribution to the Treasury Board Secretariat on the Ontario Jobs and Recovery Consultation.

This submission has been prepared in response to the Treasury Board Secretariat’s consultation on the COVID-19 crisis to create a plan for re-starting Ontario’s economy and its recovery in the short-, medium- and long-term. It covers the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on OPSEU’s 165,000 members, highlights the learning outcomes of this, and addresses suggested actions from all levels of government to move the economy forward in the months ahead.

OPSEU believes that the government, unions, and employers across Ontario need to work together to recover Ontario’s economy. We will pursue updates on the outcomes of the Treasury Board Secretariat’s Consultation, which we expect will take into consideration the voices of the public service workers who the union represents.

Responses to Discussion Questions

OPSEU’s response to the Treasury Board Secretariat’s points of consultation are as follows:

1. COVID-19 Impacts

During the last two months, there has been a focus from the government to ensure that delivery of public services continued to the extent possible and, while there has been disruption in Ontario Public Service work and workplaces, we have been able to minimize much of the economic impact on employees that have been experienced in the private sector and other areas of the broader public sector.

What were the most significant impacts for your members and what can be learned from them?

The pandemic has had a variety of effects on OPSEU members, and as a result, has taught us significant lessons. Most importantly, it has reminded us that we shouldn’t wait for a pandemic to be prepared for an emergency. Previous outbreaks, such as SARS in the early 2000s, taught us that we should always be ready for a viral outbreak. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario did not have adequate response systems in place, nor did we have enough protective gear to keep workers in hospitals, long-term care facilities, developmental service centres, correctional institutions, or LCBO locations protected. Access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in workplaces and safety measures (e.g. plexiglass barriers) were significantly delayed at the beginning of the crisis, and many employers made unilateral decisions regarding the health and safety of OPSEU’s members without consulting local Joint Health and Safety Committees. Some employers were unwilling to engage with the union or workers regarding questions around issues like pay during closures. In the Corrections sector, one of the largest effects on staff is in regard to sick leave and pay. Members who fall under the “fixed-term employee” (FXT) classification have had to use “credit” hours to take time off for sick leave. There have also been concerns expressed by our members in Corrections regarding a lack of clear and consistent communication from the provincial government on new and updated procedures around COVID-19, which is further compounded by the stress of dealing with mental health issues experienced by the inmate population.

Another lesson learned is that many workers are capable of working from home. While not all employers offered this as an option, in cases where it was, it appears that it has been generally successful. In the Ontario Public Service (OPS), while some workplaces have done a good job of keeping people connected via technology while working from home, there have been issues related to a lack of training, equipment, security, and processes for remote work, along with increased feelings of seclusion and anxiety due to the pandemic. Part of these issues stem from a lack of interest and investment on the part of some Ministries in technology and IT learning for everyone prior to the pandemic. One of the largest hurdles to implementing a work-from-home strategy for our members in the OPS has been a lack of safe childcare. We would note however, that unfortunately some employers did not take this opportunity to allow workers to work from home. In Corrections, many staff, especially those in clerical roles, could have been given the chance to work from home, but due to a lack of laptops and infrastructure like virtual private networks (VPNs), were unable to do so. This resulted in many workers being placed on leave, which lead to increasing workloads for those working on-site. The success of many work-from-home arrangements should be remembered by employers moving forward, especially when it is an option in accommodation requests.

Another lesson demonstrated by this pandemic is that private corporations should not hold the kind of sway in Ontario’s health care system that they currently do. For example, in the long-term care sector, data published by the Ontario Health Coalition has demonstrated that COVID-19 outbreaks were not only more likely in for-profit facilities, but often resulted in worse outcomes as well. When we put profits over people, we all pay the price. When it comes to health care, the way forward should be investing in public services, and not signing more private contracts.

In the OPS, our members have been able to continue to provide high quality services despite the circumstances, and have continued to provide these services across all Ministries when private operations were closed or had reduced service levels.

Finally, this pandemic has driven home the importance of fixing the rise in precarious and contingent work. Contingent forms of work have implications not just for the worker, but for the workplace and clients as well. Part-time, casual, and temporary forms of employment encourage people to go to and from different workplaces to make ends meet. In the context of a viral outbreak, the risk of cross-site contamination increases when workers need multiple jobs. Full-time, permanent jobs are needed, particularly in the health care sector, to improve the living standards of workers and the health outcomes of patients, residents, and clients served.

Moving forward, the government should ensure that labour has a key voice at the table. Prior to this crisis, public sector unions were vilified in the media by political parties, which demeaned the value of public servants. This crisis has demonstrated that unions and management can work together. OPSEU has been working with management to address issues related to staffing, layoffs, and PPE. Structures currently established in the OPS such as the Ministry Employee Relations Committees (MERCs) and Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs) work and should be fully utilized. The government should share Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs) with all levels of the operation so people can be more prepared for situations like this pandemic. Importantly, these plans must be continually updated based on lessons learned with the input from the JHSCs. Labour not only needs to have a seat at the table when discussing these important issues, but our voice must also be heard. COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, and it is vitally important that unions and the frontline workers they represent are included in Ontario’s response.  

2. Transitional and Post-Pandemic Measures

As partners in the delivery of government services to Ontarians with a strong interest in the economic strength of the provincial economy, we would like to hear your ideas for recovery.

What types of action would you like to see from different levels of government to get the economy moving again?

At the federal level, long-term care should be brought under the auspices of the Canada Health Act. This would immediately foster the proliferation of publicly-run facilities on a not-for-profit basis. The government should also critically assess our trade policy and alter where necessary to encourage the creation of good jobs in Canada. Along these lines, all levels of governments should develop a clear plan to transition to a green economy, which would provide good, stable jobs while also meeting international climate responsibilities. This is especially important as we face historic rates of unemployment in all sectors, including manufacturing and construction. As we move out of this crisis, it can be assumed that there will be calls for all levels of government to implement strict austerity measures and cut public spending in order to balance the budget after high spending to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. OPSEU would like to stress that this is not only the wrong tactic but is also the mindset that caused the significant fault lines in our healthcare systems in the first place. Further sustained spending on public services and transfers to the provinces is required to build a more robust health system. Along these lines, the federal government should take this opportunity to develop a National Pharmacare program.

The federal government also has a role to play in lowering the effects of high household debt on Canadians. This could take the form of regulating lower interest rates on personal debt such as credit cards to ease the financial burden of a slowed economy. The federal government could consider tax incentives on home renovations, especially those that increase the energy efficiency of homes.

At the provincial level, the government should ensure the reopening plan is implemented in such a way as to respond quickly to new outbreaks, which requires fulsome testing and contact tracing, and supporting public health measures for physical distancing. The government should increase inspections of long-term care facilities, while ensuring that provincial inspectors are properly protected. This is especially important considering predictions of a second wave of COVID-19. A major shortfall during this crisis was the lack of preparedness in congregate settings. The government should regulate and enforce the need to have an emergency plan in facilities that house people (jails, institutions, independent living facilities, retirement homes, group homes, etc.). At the LCBO, the government can keep staff safe by keeping the plexiglass barriers currently in place, and ensuring adequate PPE is available.

The government should increase incentives for organizations in health, development services, community services, and child & youth services to hire people on a permanent, full-time basis to cut down on cross-site contamination. Looking at specific gaps, the government must increase incentives for people to study and enter the workforce as personal support workers (PSWs). There has been an immense shortage of PSWs all across the province in all kinds of settings. The pandemic has shown that PSWs are integral to frontline care, though they are some of the lowest paid workers in the health system. One way to do this would be to re-implement requirements for equal pay between full-time employees and those who are part-time, casual, and temporary workers who are doing substantially similar work. The government should also increase investments in the public sector to allow for increased wages and benefits. Doing so would also require the government to repeal Bill 124 and allow frontline workers to bargain in a fair and free manner. Ensuring that workers have the stability of full-time and well-paid employment will increase participation in the economy and allow recovery to take place faster. The government must also ensure proper funding and support for our post-secondary institutions, which are an important economic driver in Ontario.

At the municipal level, governments should consider offering flexible payment options for municipal taxes and provide an option to extend payment periods where possible in order to reduce the immediate financial burden on households. Updated emergency plans to help the homeless population, vulnerable youth, and others who need emergency residential services are needed in case of an outbreak. Shelters can easily become breeding grounds for viruses like COVID-19 if people are packed in too tightly and aren’t given adequate opportunities to practice good hygiene.

Do you have suggestions on initiatives that could take effect quickly and yield the most in terms of economic activity?

Where and when it is safe to do so, the government could begin restarting essential public infrastructure projects. Offering consumer interest-free loans for home renovation projects could also provide a boost to economic activity. While the federal government has provided a rent subsidy to businesses, it requires the landlord of the property to access it, and there is some evidence that landlords of businesses have been unwilling to do so, resulting in permanent closures. Both the federal and provincial governments need to do more to encourage these landlords to take advantage of this subsidy to ensure small businesses will be able to easily begin operating again once the reopening strategy moves forward. As previously mentioned, the government should focus on creating more permanent full-time jobs rather than enabling the proliferation of part-time, casual, and temporary jobs. People with full-time and permanent employment are more likely to feel stable, and become more willing to spend money. On the topic of reopening the economy, it is difficult for many people to return to work without there first being adequate and safe childcare available.

Which initiatives can be brought forth that have no fiscal impact?

The government should endeavour to continually engage bargaining agents and staff throughout the pandemic and reopening process. The government also needs to start taking note of the lessons learned and create an action plan. Notably, frontline workers often have good ideas about how to do things safely and more efficiently. Engaging these frontline workers in a dialogue about how to make workplaces better and safer places doesn’t cost anything, and will likely save money in the long term. The government, working closely with labour stakeholders, also needs to develop a plan that protects workers and jobs from future unpredictable changes in health, the economy, and broader society. 

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected many industries in Ontario’s economy. This crisis has shown that government, labour unions, and employers need to work together to ensure that the province is always prepared for emergencies of this nature.

This submission covers notable issues that OPSEU has encountered from the pandemic over the past 2 months, including the need for adequate response systems and protective equipment to be in place at all times, the need for the Ontario Health Act to be updated to remove the focus of private-sector profits from our health care services, and the importance of prioritizing full-time, permanent jobs in our workforce.

We have outlined actions that should be taken on the federal, provincial and municipal levels to ensure that gaps in our health care system are fixed, all affected industries can stabilize, and Ontario’s residents are supported in being able to propel the economy forward. The suggestions for consideration outlined in this submission are vital in ensuring that our province will make it through this pandemic on strong footing, and that its workers are able to operate safely and efficiently in the case of future crises.