Several labour and industry groups call on provincial government to shut down construction, revising “essential services” designation

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

The Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC) is calling on the provincial government to suspend work on construction sites across Ontario for 14 days to protect the safety of workers and employers amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The group shares the opinion of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO) and Landscape Ontario, and thousands of individual workers, that the current “essential service” exemptions for construction are far too wide and that the most of the construction industry should really shut down for at least a couple of weeks.

OCC executive director Phil Gillies reacted to Premier Doug Ford’s directive on Monday calling for non-essential business and services to shut down, saying the message to the construction industry was confusing and contradictory.

“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations and they can have hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other,” said Gillies.

“This is contrary to the best advice of public health officials to maintain social distancing.”

Ford said he spoke with leaders in the construction industry Tuesday morning to “ensure the well-being of workers.”

Thousands of families are waiting across the province to move into new homes and “when it comes to the necessities of life, shelter is at the top of the list and we cannot take lightly a decision that could put shelter for thousands of people at risk, he said.

The chief prevention officer sent out new guidelines for construction sites and there are dozens of labour inspectors at large job sites to “ensure appropriate protocols are in place.”

“These inspectors will not hesitate to shut sites down,” Ford said. “Let me be clear, if the industry does not take every step necessary to look after their workers, I will shut them down because this is first and foremost a public health emergency.”

The provincial government on Monday ordered all non-essential businesses to close but published a list of 74 businesses deemed essential, including several construction-related business activities:

  • Construction projects and services associated with the healthcare sector, including new facilities, expansions, renovations and conversion of spaces that could be repurposed for health care space;
  • Construction projects and services required to ensure safe and reliable operations of critical provincial infrastructure, including transit, transportation, energy and justice sectors beyond the day-to-day maintenance;
  • Construction and work services, including demolition services, in the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential sectors;
  • Construction work and services that support health and safety environmental rehabilitation projects.

Gillies said the OCC supports positions taken by both the Carpenters’ and Painters’ unions in calling on the government to shut down construction temporarily.

“As Premier Ford announced (on Monday), the construction workers of this province should not be expected to work on job sites where the basic safety requirements for COVID-19 are not being met,” said Tony Iannuzzi, executive secretary treasurer of the Carpenters’ Union.

“Those minimum standards simply do not exist on most of our job sites.” Bruno Mandic, business manager and secretary-treasurer of the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 46, echoed those sentiments, saying: “It’s impossible to do our jobs (and maintain social distancing). If you’re on the 20th or 50th floor of a building working, the only way to get there is by elevator and there’s no social distancing.”

He also cited unsanitary conditions on construction job sites including a lack of running water.

Meanwhile, Landscape Ontario says in a statement that it sees no reason why member firms should open their business, except perhaps for snow removal work, which is listed as an exempt activity.

In a statement, executive director Tony DiGiovanni and president Dave Wright of the Landscape Ontario Horticultural Trades Association said that the government’s list of essential services can be interpreted broadly and at first glance it appears that Landscape Maintenance, Landscape Construction and Nurseries can continue to operate.

However, they observed:

  • The government has asked everyone to do their part in fighting the COVID virus and is urging all citizens and workplaces to curtail and modify their activities for two weeks or longer.
  • In the absence of specific clarity our interpretation might change. We all know how dynamic this situation has been.
  • Even if allowed to work, we must take extraordinary measures to protect our employees, customers and the general public.
  • Even if allowed to work it may be better from a public, health and responsibility perspective to urge all members to shut down for two weeks. We have had late starts to our season before because of weather. Perhaps we should treat the shut down as bad weather.
  • If you are stopped the onus will be on you to prove that you are an essential business. There are serious enforcement implications that must be considered.
  • There is also uncertainty with respect to the validity of your insurance if it is deemed you are breaking the law.

“We are currently in the process of getting clarity from the government.” the landscape industry representatives wrote. “The document that was released by the government is open to interpretation. We suggest you wait for clarity. We are actively seeking clarity at this time. Stay tuned.”

Thousands of others support the argument in favour of a more robust industry closure in Ontario. By Tuesday afternoon, construction worker Chris Morgan’s Change.org petition calling for a complete industry shut-down to Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had almost reached its 25,000 signature target.

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