Calgary doctor worries about vulnerable workers as some businesses prepare to reopen

There are concerns about the impact Alberta's relaunch could have on vulnerable workers including those employed in lower-paying sectors with little job security.

Some Alberta businesses are set to reopen on May 14

Dr. Amy Tan worries marginalized workers could be at risk as the province prepares to reopen some businesses. (Submitted by Dr. Amy Tan)

There are concerns about the impact Alberta's relaunch could have on vulnerable workers including those employed in lower-paying sectors with little job security.

The plan could see retail outlets — including book and clothing stores — personal care services such as hair salons, daycares, as well as restaurants and cafes, all open as early as Thursday, with some restrictions.

And while the province issued public health guidance on Monday for businesses set to re-open, some advocates worry people may feel pressure to return before they are ready or may not feel comfortable speaking up if public health rules aren't being followed.

"I really want to ensure that people feel, in fact, safe to go to work...and that they're able to voice their concerns," said Dr. Amy Tan, a family physician practising in northeast Calgary who's watched as COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on marginalized Calgarians.

"Many of the people I see are ... people of colour. They are new immigrants, refugees and they absolutely have a fear of authority and feel the power dynamic."

A lot of her patients have been working through the pandemic as essential workers, including grocery store employees, health-care aides and warehouse workers, and some have come to her with personal safety concerns.

I really want to ensure that people feel, in fact, safe to go to work and that they're able to voice their concerns.- Dr. Amy Tan

"My patients are coming and going 'I can't afford to lose my job. But I am very concerned that I'm going to get COVID-19 and my entire financial security is going to be ruined ... or worse.'"

Tan said she's had to write notes to employers advocating for her patients rights to everything from personal protective equipment to proper physical distance rules.

And she's concerned it will be no different for the next wave of workers expected to return to their jobs

"It makes me worry that many of these workers who drive the profits that are needed to help with the economy might not feel like they are empowered to actually advocate or speak up for themselves," she said.

Lorian Harcastle says there could be a second wave of COVID-19 cases as the province prepares for phase one of reopening. (Tahirih Foroozan/CBC)

Lorian Hardcastle, assistant professor in the faculty of law and the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, has similar concerns about Albertans who will be returning to work in the coming days.

Restaurant and retail jobs can be precarious, she said, and many of these workers have been off the job for weeks.

"I think there is a concern with those workers that isn't dissimilar to the concerns that we see with the meat-packing workers or the personal care workers and health-care aides in long-term care," said Hardcastle.

"Some of these types of employment are not unionized. A lot of them are very low wage type of employment so I do have a concern that those worker aren't going to be in a position to speak up for themselves or to whistleblow if they feel like conditions are unsafe."

Health officials can't monitor every business

According to Hardcastle, with such a widespread relaunch, public health officials won't be able to monitor every business as it reopens. So she says Albertans will have a role to play in reporting any concerns about businesses that may not be following public health guidance.

And another key safeguard will be the general public's ongoing adherence to physical distancing rules and other advice such as frequent handwashing and staying home when sick, she said.

There is a very real risk, according to Hardcastle, that if Albertans stop seeing the virus as a serious threat the province  could see COVID-19 cases spike again, heightening the risk for vulnerable workers.

"I think that as we reopen there is a risk of a second wave," said Hardcastle. "It is important people bear in mind that it isn't business as usual. We've made the decision to reopen certain businesses, partly for economic reasons ... but that doesn't mean there are no risks. There are still risks. So people need to be vigilant."


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