BEING RIGHT DIDN’T HELP MUCH. Workers who got their jobs through temp placement agencies have suffered from a higher rate of covid infection than other workers. Dr. Gayane Hovhannisyan warned they likely would. No one cared much.
Dr. Hovhannisyan is associate medical officer in Peel, a region of 1.4 million people to the west and southwest of Toronto that includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton. Hovhannisyan sent an email to the Ontario Ministry of Labour in December 2020 to alert them that data collected by Peel’s health unit suggested a significantly higher proportion of temp agency staff caught COVID more than other Peel residents.
Workers from agencies
in almost all outbreaks
In her email Hovhannisyan wrote: “In almost all [COVID] outbreaks we encounter agency staff from a variety of staffing agencies.
“Most of them don’t have any paid sick benefits and may be either international students or new immigrants.”
Hovhannisyan noted: many people hired through temporary help agencies were not getting tested “because they fear losing their jobs”; often lived in crowded households, worked at multiple workplaces and were generally difficult to reach.
A study by Peel’s health unit now suggests a significantly higher proportion of temp agency staff caught COVID compared to other Peel residents
Nearly half of the temp agency staff identified in the report likely caught the virus through outbreaks or close contact at work, compared to around a quarter of the general population.
More than a third of the temp workers identified in the study worked in health care.
To Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre, the results are the latest in a long line of evidence of weak protections — and the urgent need for change.
“The figures speak to people’s incredible vulnerability as temp agency workers,” says Ladd. “They are considered to be disposable.”
‘Out of scope’
Documents obtained by the Toronto Star confirm the ministry did identify temp agency usage in “farms, food processing facilities, warehousing and retirement homes” as operational priorities from the start of the pandemic.
However, the documents also show that while labour inspectors had full powers to enforce workplace safety legislation, they were excluded from enforcing some parts of the province’s new emergency laws.
Areas deemed “out of scope” included regulations on work deployment in nursing homes, such as the hiring and training of agency staff.
This makes no sense to Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, representing 60,000 front-line workers. She says she is at a loss to understand why emergency laws pertaining to frontline nursing home workers would fall outside of labour inspectors’ domain.
An epidemic in an epidemic
“Agency staffing has been a problem in long-term care,” said Stewart. “I would deem it as an epidemic in and of itself.”
A provincial directive limiting care home staff to a single worksite did not apply to temp agency workers—and there is scant data on how many of these workers were deployed, or on their infection rates.
Temp workers’ illnesses and accidents still are not required to be registered on the safety record of companies where they work.
“As long as you continue to have this huge gap in the legislation, agency workers will continue to be the ones that are more likely to get injured, more likely to get infected, more likely to suffer from human rights abuses,” said Ladd.
A recent blitz of 89 temp agencies found just four were compliant with provincial employment laws, and uncovered over $3 million in unpaid entitlements.
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