Protect Alberta Workers From Omicron – Now! – AFL

“We won’t let worker health and safety be sacrificed on the altar of UCP politics again!”

A Petition to the Alberta government from Alberta unions

Whereas during previous waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alberta government put politics, ideology and private employer interests ahead of the health and safety of workers in multiple industries including meat packing, retail, construction, education, long-term care, health care and even professional sports.

Whereas by pandering to employers who want to limit costs and maximize profits, as well as fringe anti-mask and anti-vax groups who happen to form part of the UCP base, the Kenney government created conditions that contributed to unnecessary infections, illness and death

Whereas 21 months into the pandemic, Alberta unions are not willing to accept the continued callous disregard for workers’ safety displayed by the UCP government in previous waves

Whereas the overwhelming global scientific consensus is that COVID-19 is primarily spread via tiny droplets (aerosols) that can hang in the air in indoor environments for hours “like cigarette smoke

Whereas the conclusion that “COVID is airborne” has been embraced by the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), the Canadian Medical Association as well as indoor air-quality engineers and literally thousands of infectious disease experts from around the world

Whereas the new Omicron variant of COVID is much more transmissible than the previously dominant Delta variant, which itself was more much more transmissible that earlier variants

Whereas the Omicron variant is driving huge new pandemic waves in places like the United Kingdom, which recently recorded its highest number of COVID cases since the beginning of the pandemic; Ontario, where cases are doubling every two days; and Quebec, where things have gotten so bad that they’ve decided to close schools

Whereas research suggests that one of the reasons Omicron is so much more transmissible is that it has evolved to be spread even more easily by aerosols

Whereas even though unvaccinated people are still, by far, the most vulnerable population, the number of “breakthrough cases” in people who are fully-vaccinated is much higher with Omicron than previous variants

Whereas the airborne nature of COVID, especially the Omicron variant, means that the risk of transmission is particularly high in indoor environments including homes and indoor workplaces like restaurants, schools, health care facilities, factories, grocery stores, malls and construction camps (to name just a few)

Whereas the global consensus among experts is that mass vaccination, by itself, is not enough to stop the spread of the virus or safeguard our health care systems from becoming overwhelmed by future pandemic waves, including the looming Omicron wave

Whereas these same experts agree that a “layered approach” – one that includes vaccination, rapid testing, mask and vaccine mandates, higher-grade masking (ventilators like N-95s), ventilation, UV treatment and air filtration – is the best way to control the spread of COVID, especially the Omicron variant

Whereas the costs associated with things like enhanced ventilation, UV treatment and air filtration will be more than offset by the savings, benefits and productivity enhancements associated with lower rates of sickness (from all respiratory diseases, not just COVID)

Whereas jurisdictions that focused on eliminating COVID have done far better than jurisdictions than those (like Alberta) that focused on “learning to live with it” – not only in terms of public health outcomes, but also in terms of economic outcomes

Whereas the Alberta government continues to reject the global scientific consensus that COVID is airborne; that they continue to ignore the evidence that “learning to live with it” doesn’t work; and that they continue to refuse to embrace the key lesson from the SARS Commission – namely that during pandemics, governments should embrace the Precautionary Principle

Whereas these refusals mean that Alberta public health officials are not providing the kind of pro-active guidance that’s needed to safeguard the health of our citizens and our economy

Whereas if the Alberta government continues to drag its feet, the fifth wave of the pandemic may overwhelm our ICUs and health care system the way the fourth wave did in August and September – or even worse

Therefore, we the under-signed Alberta unions and labour organizations demand that the Alberta government immediately take the following steps:

  1. Acknowledge that COVID is airborne – This is a foundational step that will open the door to needed action in areas like PPE, ventilation, and air filtration.
  2. Recognize COVID as a workplace hazard – We need to acknowledge that COVID is a workplace health and safety hazard. The pandemic will not be brought under control until the government abandons the dangerous and counterproductive fiction that COVID is spread “in the community” (homes and social settings), but not in indoor public spaces and indoor workplaces (health care facilities, schools, malls, restaurants, factories, construction work camps, etc.)
  3. Embrace a Zero COVID strategy – We need to acknowledge that strategies that aim for elimination are better than strategies that settle for mitigation. This means we need to follow the lead of places like New Zealand, Taiwan and Canada’s own Atlantic provinces, rather than places like the United Kingdom, Florida or Texas.
  4. Choose collective action – We need to acknowledge that the COVID pandemic, like climate change, is a collective problem that can only be successfully addressed by collective solutions and collective action undertaken through governments. Individuals can’t make schools, hospitals and malls safer by requiring them to improve their HVAC systems to clear the air – only governments can do that. Similarly, individuals can’t mandate mask or vaccines – only employers and governments can do those things. Politicians who continue to suggest that “personal responsibility” is the key to dealing with the pandemic are engaging in dangerous misdirection.
  5. Clear the air – We need to actively promote ventilation and air filtration as solutions for removing virus-laden aerosols from the air. This will involve deploying CO2 monitors, portable filters and UV systems in indoor public spaces and workplaces in the short term. In the longer term, it means making changes to building codes, to increase standards for indoor air quality; and it means investing in upgrades to existing HVAC systems. Meeting standards that were set before the pandemic are simply not enough to keep people safe.
  6. Mandate better PPE – We need to amend employer and government mask guidance and mandates to require people to wear higher efficiency respirators (eg K-N95s, N-95s and N-99s) as opposed to cloth masks or disposable surgical masks. This needs to be done in a much wider range of public and workplaces settings, not just selected medical settings. The evidence that respirators reduce transmission much more effectively than cloth or surgical masks is as overwhelming as the evidence for aerosol transmission of COVID. Government also needs to bulk purchase these higher quality masks from Canadian manufacturers and make them available to workers and the public free of charge, at least during the height of pandemic waves.
  7. Learn the lessons of SARS – We need to follow the advice of the SARS Commission which concluded that, during pandemics, governments need to embrace the Precautionary Principle – which states that action should be taken to protect workers and the public even if not all the science is settled. Waiting for full agreement on all contested points leads to delay – and delay leads to avoidable infection, illness and death. It is better to err on the side of caution. In the case of pandemics, delay can be just as deadly as denial.
  8. Ditch the deniers – Sometimes failure to act in the public interest is the result of having the wrong individuals in key decision-making positions. This seems to be part of the problem here in Alberta. At least one of the members of the expert panel advising the government appears to be a stubborn outlier in the global community of public health experts. We can’t let one man stand in the way of Alberta acknowledging the global consensus on things like airborne transmission. He has to go.
  9. Implement paid Sick Leave for all – The pandemic has exposed many holes in Canada’s social and economic policy framework. One of the most glaring holes has to do with sick leave. Public health authorities repeatedly tell people to stay home when they’re sick. But the reality is that about two-thirds of Alberta workers don’t have access to paid sick leave – so many of them feel they have no choice but to go to work even if they’re not feeling well. As a matter of public health and workplace safety, 10 days of employer-paid sick leave must be made available to all workers.
  10. Test, Trace, Isolate – This has been the public health mantra in jurisdictions around the world, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside here in Alberta. Now that we’re faced with the Omicron variant, we need to ramp up testing (by mailing rapid tests to all Alberta households and increasing staff at PCR testing centres). We also need to reinstitute the kind of robust contract tracing that we used to have in earlier waves of the pandemic. And we need to return to stricter rules about isolation for those who have been inflected or who have been close contacts of infected people.
  11. Consider Temporary Lockdowns as a Last Resort – Most of our members are front line workers (health care workers, education workers, grocery workers, transportations and logistics workers, etc.) who continued to work throughout all previous waves of the pandemic. Our members, like most other Albertans, want to continue working. However, if the fifth wave gets out of hand, as it increasingly seems possible, then we would support a return to “circuit-breaker lockdowns” to break the chains of transmission. However, as with previous waves, this should only be done as a last resort and with proper financial support for the workers who have their streams of income interrupted.
  12. Negotiate COVID safety with workers – In previous waves of the pandemic, the Alberta government allowed ideology and politics to take precedence over worker and public safety. That’s why we’re demanding immediate negotiation between government and unions on COVID safety in the workplace. As organizations representing tens of thousands of Alberta workers, we won’t let worker safety be put on the back burner again. If action isn’t taken to acknowledge that COVID is a workplace healthy and safety issue; and if effective steps aren’t taken to eliminate or mitigate the workplace hazards associated with Omicron, Alberta unions will have no choice but to consider more aggressive action to force the government’s hand, including legal and workplace actions.

Alberta Federation of Labour
Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists
Amalgamated Transit Union
Athabasca University Faculty Association
Baker, Confectionery, Tobacco & Grain Miller Workers International Union
Canadian Office & Professional Employees Union
Canadian Union of Postal Workers
Canadian Union of Public Employees
Health Sciences Association of Alberta
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists & Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada
International Association of Machinist & Aerospace Workers
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental & Reinforcing Ironworkers
International Union of Operating Engineers
Labourers’ International Union of North America
Media & Communications Workers of Alberta
Non-Academic Staff Association
Public Service Alliance of Canada
Service Employees International Union
Teamsters Canada Rail Division
UNITE Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees!
United Food & Commercial Workers
United Mine Workers of America
United Nurses of Alberta
United Steelworkers