In spite of Society leaders’ and members’ health and safety concerns, earlier this month Ontario Power Generation (OPG) began requiring employees who had been working from home to return to their normal work location. OPG is the first employer of Society members to transition employees that had been ordered to work from home back into the regular workplace.
The Society of United Professionals did not have a role in developing OPG’s return-to-office plan.
At a recent joint union-management meeting, Society President Scott Travers and OPG Local Vice President Joe Fierro both expressed specific concerns about the plans. Most significantly, the plans see workers returning to office environments before the Ontario government has advised non-essential office workers to do so. The Society put forward the position that all employees who can work from home should continue to do so at least until the provincial government indicates it is appropriate for non-essential workers to return to their offices.
As an employer deemed essential by the provincial government, and therefore technically exempt from the closure order, OPG is legally permitted to require all workers to attend their normal work location.
Though the Society continues to oppose the move to reopen administrative offices at this time, the union recognizes that OPG is taking steps to accommodate employees’ health, safety and family circumstances, including:
- Gradually reintroducing employees to workplaces;
- Alternating groups of employees in workplaces;
- Directing employees to maintain physical distance of 2-metres from others in the workplace;
- Providing employees with one mask per day to wear while working;
- Implementing enhanced cleaning measures;
- Exempting employees from attending the workplace if they have health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19
- Exempting employees from attending the workplace who are 70 years of age or older; and
- Exempting employees from attending the workplace if they are required to provide family care to, for example, young children or elderly parents.
While all of OPG’s measures are appropriate, the Society continues to be concerned that they are not sufficient to protect members from unnecessary exposure to the novel Coronavirus. The Society’s OPG Local Delegates, Unit Directors and Local Vice President are actively monitoring return to work and ensuring there is appropriate support for any member concerned about the health and safety conditions in their workplace or who is unreasonably denied an exemption from attending the workplace.
An essential component of monitoring the OPG return-to-work process will be Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC), which exist for every OPG workplace. The Society sent a detailed memorandum to union representatives on JHSCs on May 27, 2020. In that memo, JHSC representatives are reminded of workers’ fundamental rights in the workplace – including the right to refuse unsafe work, how to challenge unsafe working conditions, how to contact the Ministry of Labour to request a workplace inspection, and how to contact the senior Society representatives at the OPG Local responsible for health and safety.
In addition to equipping local representatives with information and support, OPG Local Vice President Joe Fierro held a Webinar on May 26, 2020 to answer members’ questions about return-to-office and how the Society is supporting members. Almost 1,200 members participated in the meeting — the largest single member meeting in the union’s history — showing the extraordinary level of concern among OPG employees. Many more members watched a recording of the meeting, which continues to be available in the Members Portal.
Even though the Society believes OPG’s return-to-office is beginning too soon, the process is sure to offer lessons for the union’s leadership at other locals as their members face return-to-work procedures in the coming weeks and months. Central and local Society leaders will continue to work collaboratively and share information to ensure members all across the province benefit from the experience and resources developed through this process.