Plague on the Job

As Covid-19 finds an awful new gear, Saskatchewan workers worry about the months ahead

Pandemic by Stephen Whitworth

More than a year after it started, Covid-19 is on the rise again in Saskatchewan with more than 200 new cases most days, record numbers of people in hospital ICU beds and schools in some (but not all) parts of the province shifting to remote learning.

And with new variants making up an increasing proportion of cases, the pandemic is scarier than ever.

Every part of life is affected: seeing our friends, visiting family, shopping and sending kids to school. Every person we interact with carries a risk of infecting us. To use vernacular we at this newspaper are fond of, it pretty much sucks butt for everyone.

But for many employees, it’s also a uniquely dangerous time to go to work.

Close Quarters

Some are lucky — they can do their jobs remotely from home and avoid contact with others. But if you’re a teacher, or work in a prison, or even work in retail, you will end up in the presence of other humans.

And with vaccination still in its early stages, all one can rely on are masks, social distancing procedures, handwashing and hand sanitizer — and crossed fingers.

Sometimes that might be enough.

Other times, not so much.

Barry Nowoselsky is the chair of the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union’s public service/government employment negotiating committee. Nowoselsky represents thousands of workers across Saskatchewan, including corrections workers, social workers, and wildlife and highway patrol officers.

Right now, he’s worried for his members’ safety. In particular, he’s not feeling very good about conditions in Saskatchewan Correctional facilities.

Despite inherently ripe conditions for deadly outbreaks, Scott Moe’s government has refused to prioritize corrections workers for vaccination.

“I’ll be honest, it’s a concern of ours,” says Nowoselsky. “It always has been and quite frankly it’s something I’m very disappointed in.

“The Health Authority came out with a plan to roll out vaccines, and in Phase 2 have vaccinations for Corrections, and that didn’t happen, adds Nowoselsky. “From day one, we’ve believed that correctional officers, along with people who work in the young offenders’ facility — and also inmates — be vaccinated.

“These individuals have no choice. They are essential workers who have to go to work, and if there are positive cases there, they’ve got to deal with that.

“We wholeheartedly supported all the health care workers getting vaccinated,” says Nowoselsky. “We supported seniors living in communal settings being vaccinated — that made absolute sense. But where we’re very disappointed in government is where they left out essential workers.

“And it’s not just us — you have police officers and other groups you would have expected be vaccinated as a priority.”

To Nowoselsky, it’s not just a mistake — it’s something government should have been prepared for.

“Back in 2009, we went to the employer, we went to government,” he says. “We told them at that time, in 2009, it’s not a question of if there will be a pandemic in this province, it’s only a question of when. We told them: ‘you’ve got to put a plan in place. You’ve got to be prepared.’”

“Even though they did some work on it, they were ill-prepared for a lot of things they should’ve been.”

Is it a complete disaster? No, says Nowoselsky. Saskatchewan’s government has done some things well.

“I’ll be honest, for the most part in executive government they’re done a pretty good job,” says Nowoselsky. “Correctional centres [were] better prepared than most. They’ve done a pretty good job dealing with the PPE and putting policies and things in place.”

“Where I’m disappointed is that we expected to see vaccinations for correctional facilities staff and inmates take place. That was supposed to be a priority for the SHA, and it turned out not to be.”

Growing Discontent

In other quarters, however, the government has been criticized. Restaurants and clubs have been unhappy, some because regional rather than province-wide restrictions on dining seem unfair. The Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation has been vocal in its displeasure with the Province’s refusal to implement a Saskatchewan-wide “circuit breaker” shutdown after spring break.

Others point to the fact that jurisdictions like New Zealand and Australia, which implemented far more firm and consistent lockdowns, have returned to life close to normal. Why couldn’t that be Saskatchewan, they ask?

But it’s not Saskatchewan. And as cases rise, variants spread and ICU beds fill, workers have a long and uncertain wait before this province returns to anything close to normal.

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