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COVID-related staffing shortages fuelled by Omicron variant grinds Canada down


Some jurisdictions have made it easier for sick people to get back to work, but labour groups have condemned the push to prioritize the economy over public health

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As Omicron tears through Canada, even public libraries have been forced to close amid a wave of COVID-19 related staffing shortages affecting industries ranging from small businesses to airlines and the health-care sector.

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The speed with which COVID has spread during the fifth wave, driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant, and compounded by cold weather pushing people indoors — particularly over the holiday season — has driven case counts to record-breaking highs in much of the country. And while there hasn’t yet been a dramatic spike in hospitalizations, the number of people who need to self-isolate has skyrocketed.

“There are, from a labour force perspective, a whole host of crosscurrents right now, with some creating  unemployment and others that will take workers out of the labour force,” said Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Some jurisdictions across Canada have made it easier for sick people to get back to work, shortening the mandatory isolation period. It’s a move that some say will help reduce staffing shortages, but labour groups have condemned the push to prioritize the economy over public health.

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As of Monday, Canada had some 320,000 active COVID-19 cases. The bulk of those — 230,000 — are in Ontario and Quebec, with British Columbia logging around 30,000 active cases, Alberta 21,000 and Manitoba 15,000.

Rafael Gomez, a professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto, said there isn’t hard data on something like Omicron-related staff absences, but there are anecdotes aplenty. Some sectors will feel the impacts more keenly, such as restaurants, which rely on human labour, compared to the auto sector, which is heavily automated.

“We would be advised to treat this seriously and find workable solutions that balance health and safety as regards to the virus versus health and well-being as broadly understood, right, that you need certain things to keep going — even if there’s a small risk of someone contracting COVID,” said Gomez.

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The Toronto Public Library announced Tuesday that it will temporarily close 44 branches due to COVID-19 related staffing shortages, starting next Monday.

Staff will be reassigned to support 52 of the library’s biggest and most-used branches, which will stay in operation.

WestJet, the Calgary-based airline, said last week it was going to cancel roughly 15 per cent of flights because more than 180 staff were off sick; the spread of the virus had upset the company’s contingency plans, it said.

“We find ourselves no longer able to predictably resource our planned schedule due to Omicron impact,” said a statement  last week from Harry Taylor, WestJet’s interim president and CEO.

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Labour shortages have hamstrung the health-care sector throughout the pandemic. In Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., a bedroom community of Edmonton, the hospital has suspended labour and delivery services, because of staffing shortages.

When Ontario announced it was delaying the return of in-person learning for schools, Premier Doug Ford cited the number of people sick in other sectors as evidence schools wouldn’t have staffing levels necessary to open.

“Operating schools (and) ensuring teachers are on the job and not home sick will be a challenge we cannot overcome in the short term,” Ford said.

There could be another knock-on effect, too, of schools being closed.

Kelly Grindrod, an associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Waterloo, said she spent the Christmas holiday on the front lines, working in vaccine clinics, as Ontario scrambles to immunize and boost more of the population. When Ontario last closed schools, she said it was a choice between one of her kids doing her schoolwork, and her doing her job.

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“When I’m not out of the house, and I’m actually at home and I’m supposed to be having meetings … I have kids to educate too. So you start to drop every ball,” Grindrod said. “And so all sudden now your critical workforce, including your health-care providers, including your vaccine givers, vaccinators, planners, coordinators, they’re all at home with their kids as well.”

In Manitoba, Actionmarguerite, which operates supportive housing and long-term care facilities, said it was facing a staffing shortage because of staff off sick. It has led, a  letter to families  explains, to the suspension of the delivery of non-essential medications, the replacement of full baths with sponge baths for residents and bed linens will be changed only when they become wet or dirty.

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“Positive staff cases continue to rise and in addition to the positive cases, we are also experiencing very high volumes of sick calls,” says a blog post from Micheline St-Hilaire, the chief executive officer. “This is an intense time for us.”

Several provinces — including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario — have reduced isolation times, something the Retail Council of Canada, a business advocacy group, has said would be “welcome news to our members who continue to contend with staff shortages.”

Jason Copping, Alberta’s health minister, said last week that reducing the isolation time for fully vaccinated Albertans from 10 to five days would help minimize economic disruptions from people being off sick with COVID-19.

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“We feel this is prudent given the evidence that shows that fully immunized people have shorter infectious periods,” said Copping at a New Years Eve press conference. “We’re making these changes to help prevent disruptions in Alberta’s workforce … we believe this step will help balance the need for continuity in the workforce, the well-being of Albertans and our need to reduce the spread of the Omicron variant.”

The rules vary somewhat province to province; while Alberta and British Columbia are at five days, for example, Ontario says workers will “have the opportunity to return to work” after seven days of isolation, with negative test results.

Labour leaders have condemned the rush to get people back to the workplace.

“That’s putting profits before people, period,” said Jerry Dias, the head of Unifor, the largest private sector union in the country.

Kelly said he hasn’t heard “major reports or panic” about workers not coming in because they’re off sick, but expects it will happen.

“We can expect that we’re going to see a pretty big swath of the Canadian labour force having to sit on the sidelines for many days,” Kelly said.

— With additional reporting from The Canadian Press

• Email: tdawson@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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