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Thomas to cabinet: Protect our workers!

OPSEU/SEFPO President 'Smokey' Thomas speaking

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas has written to Premier Ford and all members of his cabinet, urging them to involve frontline OPSEU members in developing strategies to address and contain the coronavirus.

In his letters, Thomas cites the 2003 SARS Commission, which admonished the government for ignoring or silencing the voices of frontline workers. He said worker safety must be a top priority, and that the government must consult OPSEU workers before implementing policy – for their good, for the good of those in their care, and for the well-being of every Ontarian.

“OPSEU’s goal is to ensure that each one of our 165,000 frontline members comes home from work safe and sound every day,” Thomas concludes.

Below is the letter Thomas sent to the Premier:

January 31, 2020

The Honourable Doug Ford
Premier of Ontario and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs
Room 281, Legislative Building, Queen’s Park
Toronto ON  M7A 1A1

Dear Premier:

As you may know, on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency. It makes it all the more important to join together in global solidarity to stop this threat. I am writing to ask you to ensure that frontline workers and their bargaining agents are fully involved on the coronavirus file.

I support the work of the government’s Emergency Operation Centre, including the daily teleconferences and status reports. 

OPSEU wants to help and work with you to ensure a safe and healthy Ontario for all. It’s important that your ministry strike a table with our frontline experts for discussions about managing risks and developing and implementing pandemic plans.

I remind you of your obligations to do so under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, its regulations and the collective agreements to which you and your transfer-payment agencies are parties. However, sharing information that affects workers’ health and safety should not be limited to statutory or contractual obligations.

As noted in my letter to Minister of Health Christine Elliott last week, the SARS Commission reported in 2007 that health and safety voices, including those of worker representatives and the Ministry of Labour, were silenced or ignored during that outbreak. The consequences were profound and sometimes deadly. This must not be repeated.

The SARS Commission specifically recommended that “in any future infectious disease crisis, directives involving worker safety be prepared with input from the workplace parties who have to implement them.”

We are doing our part by communicating with our members and operationalizing their recommendations.

OPSEU’s goal is to ensure that not only each one of our 165,000 frontline members comes home from work safe and sound every day, but that all Ontarians are protected.


Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union

c:           The Honourable Christine Elliott, Minister of Health
              Helen Angus, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Health

Thomas also wrote to every OPSEU local president, advising them of actions they need to take with their members and respective employers in light of the coronavirus:

January 31, 2020

Dear Local Presidents,

As you may know, on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency. It makes it all the more important to join together in global solidarity to stop this threat. With the fast-changing situation, OPSEU wants to ensure our local presidents are receiving the support they need. We would like to provide you with information we believe you will find useful when fielding questions from members of your local.

I have sent letters to the Minister of Health and all other cabinet ministers stressing the importance of making sure frontline workers are consulted and fully informed of developments. I have also recommended that each minister establish a table in which our members can have input on emergency preparedness.

As of Monday, January 27, I and members of OPSEU staff have actively participated in a daily teleconference with the Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams; Clint Shingler, Director, Health System Emergency Management; and Dr. Sarah Wilson, Medical Epidemiologist.

These teleconferences, which will continue every day until further notice, have been very informative for OPSEU to ensure the Ontario government is taking the appropriate and responsible steps to prevent a repeat of the SARS crisis of 2003.

The Ministry of Health is currently developing a series of sector-specific guidelines to properly inform and assist the public. Members are encouraged to visit www.ontario.ca/page/2019-novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov for the latest up-to-date information from the ministry. This website will be updated every day at 10:30 a.m. (EST).

While there are currently two confirmed cases in the city of Toronto, the message to all OPSEU members at this point is clear: The current threat level to all Ontarians remains very low. The two individuals arrived in Toronto together on a flight from Wuhan, China, on January 22. Thanks to lessons learned from the SARS crisis, screening protocols already in place at Pearson International identified the risk and also provided some direction to the passengers to limit their own movements and contact with others. This has minimized the potential for infecting others.

The incubation period for the coronavirus is approximately 10 to 14 days. As a result, the next couple of weeks will require diligence from government officials. OPSEU will be closely monitoring any initiatives put forth by the Ontario government and will be actively seeking direct involvement in those initiatives.

In the meantime, members need to consider some basic questions when thinking about their own particular risk level at work and at home. Is there something my employer should/could be doing to assist in preventing an outbreak? Is there something local union leadership could be doing to ensure the employer is taking every step possible to prevent an outbreak?

The local employer does not, and should not, wait for specific directions from the government, when the employer is more than able to initiate some of the following steps:

  • For workplaces with formed joint health and safety committees, health and safety representatives’ meetings can be scheduled in short notice to discuss specific policies or procedures already in place to ensure local readiness or compliance.
  • For required workplaces: immediate review of pandemic or COOP plans.
  • Conduct risk assessment or overall procedure/policy review of issues related to infectious disease, cleaning protocols, overall stock or supply of personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, etc.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) directs all employers and supervisors to “…take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker…”  and to “…afford assistance and co-operation to a committee and a health and safety representative in the carrying-out by the committee and the health and safety representative of any of their functions…” The language in the act is clearly written to promote collaborative efforts on the part of the employer, particularly when simple and prudent actions in the name of safety are being recommended by the workers to ensure the overall safety of the workplace.

The circumstances surrounding the coronavirus in Ontario today, while fluid, continue to be precarious. This province learned a lot of lessons after the crisis of SARS, and perhaps the number-one lesson learned was that complacency served no one.

OPSEU encourages all local presidents to engage in conversation with their members and the employer to ensure leadership rules the day. If you have any questions or concerns, please consult your OPSEU staff representative for assistance.


Warren (Smokey) Thomas

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