OPSEU urges greater attention be paid to community social service workers and vulnerable populations

“You can’t provide emergency housing over a video conference. We need to be there to ensure that they get the safe and supportive housing they need.” — Kareen Marshall, OPSEU Community Agencies Sector Chair

Toronto (02 April 2020) — As a Toronto homeless shelter reports that a worker has tested positive for COVID-19, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) is urging that the Chief Medical Officer provide the same protections to community social service workers that he’s granting health care workers.

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate

“This virus doesn’t care about job titles,” said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, OPSEU President. “If your work brings you into close contact with others, you’re at risk. And shelter work, like a lot of other community social service work, brings you in close contact with others."

“This virus also doesn’t recognize status,” said Thomas. “Our members are far from the only ones in danger here. The people they’re helping are already some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and COVID-19 has left them even more vulnerable."

“If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that when we get through this crisis, we need a strategy to ensure that every one of us has a home.”

Community social service workers need appropriate personal protective equipment

Thomas said he applauds the new powers that the provincial government and health authorities have given to all health care workers and their unions to determine what Personal Protective Equipment they need to do their jobs safely.

“Health care workers are now availed protections like masks when deemed clinically appropriate, which is excellent,” said Thomas. “Community social service workers in close contact with individuals who are positive or presumptive positive deserve exactly the same thing.”

Social distancing doesn’t work for all jobs

Kareen Marshall, who is the chair of OPSEU’s Community Agencies Sector, works at Homes First Society, the Toronto shelter where the worker — also an OPSEU/NUPGE member — has tested positive. Marshall says she and her co-workers are trying to socially distance as much as possible while at work, but it’s not always possible.

“You can’t provide emergency housing over a video conference,” said Marshall. “We need to be there to ensure that they get the safe and supportive housing they need.”

Spread is spread

Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President and Treasurer said he understands that masks and other safety equipment are in short supply.

“And that’s exactly why community social service workers urgently need a real voice on the safety of their work,” said Almeida. “With limited supplies, we have to make sure everybody who really needs protection gets it. We’re not doing ourselves any favours if we stop the spread in hospitals and long-term care homes while it’s spreading unchecked through our group homes and shelters.”

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE