Whose mask tab is it, anyway? Why pandemic protection is a touchy issue in the service economy
Paying for PPE matters to many service jobs, which often involve higher risks and lower wages
At Bannerman Brewing in downtown St. John's, server Peter Lannon weaves in and out of people balancing multiple drinks in his hand with a finesse and skill as precise as a figure skater.
From the moment a patron enters the establishment until well after they have left, Lannon is in constant contact with customers, from seating them and serving their drinks and food to handling payment, cleaning up and sanitizing every dish they have touched.
This is the service economy in the era of COVID, where a public-facing job now comes with an undesirable side of potential exposure to coronavirus.
This is also an example of a situation playing out daily in stores, restaurants and pubs across Newfoundland and Labrador, where employees are required to don a mask to do their jobs, but there not clear mandates on who must pay for them.
Lannon said it's hard not to feel anxious, even though the prevalence of COVID-19 remains low in Newfoundland and Labrador. As of Monday afternoon, there were two active cases in the province.
"There have been days I come home from work and I'm aggressively taking a shower … being kind of nervous about maybe who [I] had come in contact with," he said. "You see somebody at a table and they could have flu like symptoms and you still have to serve them because it's my job."
Company sees mask as part of a uniform
Bannerman Brewing owner Phil Maloney admits it hasn't been easy to attract staff. He also says the company did not want to put a financial burden on its employees by requiring them to pay for masks.
"We wanted our employees to feel safe, first and foremost, coming back to work," said Maloney.
The company sees masks as part of the uniform, which the employer is responsible for providing, while the employee is responsible for its care.
Bannerman Brewing has provided one reusable handmade mask to each member of staff, at cost of between $15 and $20 each.
We wanted our employees to feel safe, first and foremost.- Phil Maloney
Newfoundland and Labrador does not legally require all employers to cover the cost of masks.
In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Health and Community Services said that "individuals are encouraged to obtain and use their own personal masks for daily use. Anyone who is unable to obtain their own personal masks for use in the workplace should speak to their supervisor or employer to discuss possible solutions."
Shouldering the cost of a mask can be an issue for both employer and employee. For small businesses in the service industry, the year started with a week of closures due to the Snowmageddon blizzard, following by a lockdown in March triggered by COVID-19.
Reopening came with the necessity of extra cleaning supplies, procedures and labour, all while operating at 50 per cent capacity.
For many employees in the service economy, any extra cost is always a challenge. Across Canada, the average hourly wage rate in 2019 in the accommodation and food services sector was $16.54. Some earn less. The minimum wage in Newfoundland and Labrador goes up Wednesday to $12.15 an hour, an increase of 50 cents.
'We're in this together'
Colin LeGrow, who consults with companies on how to mitigate hazardous work environments, says provincial occupational health and safety legislation does set a bar for employers.
"There is a general duty clause where an employer, where reasonably practical, shall ensure the health, safety and welfare of his or her workers," said LeGrow, president of Technical Rope and Rescue.
Not all work environments, though, are alike. LeGrow says both sides need to co-operate.
"Is the exposure any different [inside the employee's] home or the [employee's] workplace? If it's magnified at the workplace, then the employer has a general responsibility in order to protect against that and the employee also has a responsibility to be involved with that process and comply with what's expected of them," said LeGrow.
"We're in this together."
Even there is no mandate to provide employees with personal protective equipment, including masks, many employers do it anyway.
Richard Alexander, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers Council, said that the organization has found employers taking COVID-19 and its impact seriously.
"I've yet to meet [an] employer that wants to see one of their employees become ill from anything or get injured in the workplace," said Alexander.
Back at Bannerman Brewing, Lannon said he appreciates a supportive and positive work environment, although the risks of working in the industry have weighed on him, including making him wonder about older individuals and the immunocompromised people in his life that he may be putting in jeopardy due to the nature of his work.
"I, personally, have found it hard sometimes on my mental [health] to feel stable in a work environment where, you know, I don't really know who I'm serving or who they could have been exposed to," said Lannon.
Lannon added his mask does not merely reduce physical transmission of COVID-19 but also gives him a sense of mental security.