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Tracking the pandemic’s toll on Canada’s largest retail network

Canada Post is adding additional stress on postal workers all while ignoring their calls for better health and safety

COVID-19Labour

The government is failing to ensure that Canada Post employees are treated like frontline workers, and exposing them to additional stress and unsafe working conditions amid the pandemic. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

On February 25, the Canada Post Corporation announced that Canadian households would be receiving postage-paid postcards they could use to write to someone they’ve been missing during the pandemic.

“Under difficult circumstances,” read a press release put out by the Crown corporation, “Canada Post broke records for parcel delivery in Canada, but it still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.”

Despite trying to “deliver a smile” by urging that “meaningful connection is vital for our emotional health, sense of community and overall well-being,” Canada Post is inadvertently adding additional stress on postal workers by making them distribute 13.5 million additional pieces of mail—all while ignoring their calls for better health and safety.

Just this past January, a COVID-19 outbreak among workers at Canada Post’s Gateway facility in Mississauga, Ontario, made national headlines. 273 employees at the facility tested positive and one employee died after catching the virus. Godfrey Yeung, 62, was a veteran of Canada Post and left behind a family.

“There should be some sort of accountability and responsibility… I never get any answers from anyone,” said Yeung’s sister.

The Canadian Union for Postal Workers has been demanding its members be kept safe throughout the pandemic. In response to Yeung’s death, CUPW Toronto local president Qaiser Maroof said, “this tragedy underscores why we have been insisting to the governments that the postal workers are indeed frontline workers. When will the government ensure that our members are treated like frontline workers? When will our health and safety be treated with high importance?”

Just weeks after the outbreak was first reported, Canada Post declared the Gateway facility had “returned to normal” and management advised customers across the country to expect delivery delays. Still, questions around consequences and accountability remain.

Worker health and safety caught in the jurisdiction trap

In January, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton declared that 69 percent of businesses were found to be in compliance with COVID-19 safety measures. Despite the inaction of nearly a third of workplaces, McNaughton praised businesses for their handling of the pandemic: “We know most businesses are operating responsibly and taking the necessary steps to protect their workers and customers, and I want to thank them for their efforts.”

In reality, Ontario is not responsible for inspecting any Canada Post facilities like the Gateway mail depot, which employs 4,500 workers, because it is a matter of federal oversight.

Most employers in Canada are provincially regulated and are subject to provincial legislation, such as Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. Meanwhile, however, employers in certain sectors fall under federal jurisdiction by virtue of the business activities they engage in, such as airlines, banks, and telecommunications companies. Their obligations with respect to occupational health and safety are set out in the Canada Labour Code, and as a federally regulated employer, wholly owned by the Crown, Canada Post falls under the latter jurisdiction.

Unlike at other companies, Canada Post workers continue to face significant challenges partly as a result of this jurisdictional divide. Even with the massive COVID outbreak at the Mississauga plant, the lack of a workable solution that protects postal workers amounts to little more than Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) sticking its head in the sand.

In a statement, ESDC said the federal department investigated the Gateway facility in late January, finding that Canada Post had contravened federal labour laws in handling the outbreak. However, it remains unclear whether there will be stronger preventable measures put in place, or whether managers will be held accountable for the outbreak.

Pushing postal workers to the edge

This failure is not exclusive to the Gateway facility. There is a growing number of reported cases of Canada Post workers across the country refusing unsafe work due to the pandemic, as the Crown corporation has failed to provide proper personal protective equipment, maintain adequate cleaning in plants and depots, or enforce physical distancing measures.

In Edmonton, nearly a dozen workers collectively refrained from punching in using their pass cards on machines without adequate sanitation. Letter carriers are also feeling increased stress and anxiety brought on by the higher work load and lack of protection.

Workers have been denied sick leave needed to protect themselves and their families. Some have even walked off the job to be tested if they are not feeling well, only to be disciplined if they fail to provide a positive test.

As Canada Post workers deal with the onslaught of parcels—and as consumers are encouraged by governments to shop online—staff are still stationed close together for longer periods because of the collation and sorting involved in parcel delivery.

Meanwhile, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Post retail outlet workers continue to be undermined by the contracting out of front-end postal service work to the private sector which has reduced wages despite the increased work volume.

Workers need to be better valued in the long run, not just during the pandemic. If a national mail service falls under the umbrella of essential work, then corners cannot be cut. At issue is the fact the federal government as an employer has significant health and safety responsibilities and should be setting the standard for the private sector. Instead, it is demonstrating how to circumvent labour rights.

It is particularly concerning that the lack of pressure on the worst workplace health and safety risks has inevitably led to a sharp increase in the number of positive cases. This is especially dangerous in light of the new variants of concern.

Canada Post is still an important institution and is well-placed to deliver a post-COVID recovery. What workers need from our publicly-owned postal service is economic transformation, not adding millions of pieces of mail to their pick-up points, sorting stations, and delivery routes.

Ysh Cabana is a writer and community organizer living in Toronto. He is also a member of BAYAN-Canada, alliance of progressive Filipino groups.

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