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Shawn Boone has been so worried about the workers at the Concentrix Call Centre in Glace Bay that he picketed the building a few days ago in the rain.
Carrying a sign that said “Shut It Down Work From Home,” the Sydney resident wasn’t taking any chances, armed with a protective face mask and glasses, maintaining a safe distance from the building.
Boone knows workers in the building, including his girlfriend who has a compromised immune system, are still working in the building’s close quarters, during this COVID-19 outbreak. He has tried to reach the corporate office by phone and email and hasn’t received any response.
Boone’s girlfriend, who spoke to the Cape Breton Post on the condition of anonymity, said the call centre employs about 700 over several floors. On her floor even after the Health Protection Act was in place there were about 150 still working on it late last week.
“Halfway through the day, they started splitting us up and moving some of us to other floors. There were still more than 50 people in our room," she said.
The woman said in many cases there’s not safe spacing between desks and people have to walk down many rows of work stations to get to the washroom or lunchroom.
After reporting she had a cough and that she wouldn’t be going in, she’s still on the schedule
“We know we can’t get fired now but we don’t know what’s going to happen six months from now or a year from now."
Another woman with three children also employed at the call centre was crying on the phone to the Post on Tuesday.
“I’m terrified,” she said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They’re not sympathetic if you’re not feeling well. As well there’s not enough spacing of our desks.”
The woman said she’s scared of bringing the virus home to her children.
“It’s supposed to be an emergency situation in Nova Scotia and they don’t seem to be treating it that way.”
The Cape Breton Post tried to reach the company’s main office and its local office last Friday as well as Wednesday but had not had emails or phone calls returned.
The Cape Breton Post received a number of calls from worried Nova Scotia employees the past number of days, a province where a state of emergency has been declared and on Wednesday, 17 new cases of COVID-19 were announced, totalling 68.
An employee of Kent Building Supplies in Sydney said there have been concerns about not enough social distancing and even an employee forced to work after 811 advised them to self-isolate.
The worker said there is a confidential number though the J.D. Irving company – which owns Kent’s – for concerns. The worker called and on Tuesday there were major changes in the building including customers limited to eight in the store at a time.
“That’s not to say it’s not going to go back to how it was.”
However, he said they are still being informed a doctor’s note would be needed to be off sick, although the province announced that wasn’t required during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cape Breton Post contacted the head office for the company but had not heard back by deadline.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said as far as someone on self-isolation and forced to go to work, employees and employers have to understand the health protection act under his name trumps any workplace directives.
“Many places, if you’re a unionized environment or you have occupational health and safety, if you feel that you’re required to self-isolate and feel your employer is not respecting that, bring that forward to those routes,” he said. “If you have no other route, then contact your public health office because that is a directive that my medical officers are operationalized under my name and we will help you out.”
Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, said he has been receiving numerous calls and private messages from people in the workforce concerned over their employer not adhering to the regulations set out by the province that include social distancing.
“The calls are increasing as people are getting more frustrated.”
Calls include people working in factories, call centres, fish plants, municipal workers as well as technicians doing phone and internet installations in people’s homes.
“They are concerned they don’t have any protection,” he said. “They don’t know what they are walking into every day.”
Cavanagh advises any worker with such concerns to talk to their occupational health and safety worker or the toll-free number Department of Labour (1-800-952-2687) has in place for such concerns as they are investigating compliance.
Premier Stephen McNeil said they haven’t been receiving a lot of complaints about employers not adhering to the Health Protection Act but obviously people are wondering if they are an essential service and if they can continue to operate.
McNeil said he can’t speak specifically on the call centre the Post received calls from but said those are the workplaces they are seeing creativity. Call centres and banks are using one desk or stall and leaving the next one vacant to meet the criteria of public health.
“That’s the kind of creative stuff we are telling employers they need to do,” he said. “These services need to continue to go on, our economy needs to continue to operate but in the way that protects public health.”
McNeil said he wants to be clear with employers across the province they are expected to do everything they can to protect the health of their employees. However, McNeil said his experience has been most employers want to cooperate.
There are periodic inspections province-wide taking place but they will look into any complaints under the Health Protection Act, he added.
Shannon Kerr, a spokesperson with the Department of Labour, said employers and employees must follow the orders issued under the Health Protection Act. If an employee feels their employer is not complying with an order under the act — such as social distancing — they should report this concern to their immediate supervisor or joint occupational health and safety committee and if needed can contact the safety branch at their 1-800-9-Labour line or by email at LAESafetyBranch@novascotia.ca
Kerr said when there is a complaint they will investigate to determine if an inspection is required. Since March 1, the labour department has received 152 COVID-19 related inquiries. No orders related to COVID-19 have been issued under the OHS Act at this time.
Desiree Magnus, spokesperson for the Cape Breton Regional Police Service, said police have received a few COVID-19 related workplace complaints and have followed up to ensure compliance with the directives under the Health Protection Act. Compliance measures have been verified there have been no Summary Offence Tickets laid to date, she said.
On March 24 police received 10 COVID-related calls over a 24-hour period.