Nfld. & Labrador

'Sheer panic' at Confederation Building, says NAPE, as worker tests positive for COVID-19

Government workers are asking why they can't work from home after an employee tested positive at the West Block of Confederation Building.

Government knew Wednesday night, employees found out after arriving at work Thursday

An employee in the west block of Confederation Building in St. John's has tested positive for COVID-19. (CBC)

The province's largest public sector union is sounding off on the provincial government after an employee tested positive at Confederation Building, and more continue to be required to work in-person.

The positive test result was confirmed Wednesday, according to an email sent Thursday morning to Confederation Building employees.

Many workers are now asking why they haven't been sent home by their departments, or by the clerk of the executive council.

"People are in sheer panic," said Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle, who said the union has been inundated with calls on Thursday morning.

"Why are they so hell-bent to keep people in buildings when they can provide the services remotely [while] protecting the health and safety of front-line workers, protecting the health and safety of their families and protecting the health and safety of our community?"

The employee who tested positive works in the building's west block, whose parking lot was the site of a proposed drive-thru voting site for people in isolation, a plan which has since been cancelled with the postponement for in-person voting for 18 electoral districts.

The decision to postpone, as well as extend special ballot applications, came from Elections NL's chief electoral officer Bruce Chaulk Thursday afternoon.

A spokesperson for the executive council, which oversees the Confederation Building, said employees are being selected to work from home in an effort to reduce contacts in the workplace.

One west block employee, who spoke to CBC on condition of anonymity, said people felt dejected, angry and scared after learning of the positive test on Thursday morning.

They said many workers have been pushing to return to working from home for weeks, but have been met with resistance from management.

After news of the positive test, the employee said, they were the only person in their office to be sent home with a laptop. Everyone else stayed behind.

Government learned of positive case Wednesday night

The executive council spokesperson said the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Municipalities learned of the positive case on Wednesday night.

"Shortly thereafter, managers began contacting employees who were directly impacted and advised them not to come to work and that public health officials would be reaching out to them directly to arrange for testing or other follow up as necessary. The department completed contacting these employees early this morning," the statement reads.

Earle was outraged the provincial government did not notify everyone by a mass email until after they'd arrived at work on Thursday morning. He says they should have been notified so they could decide whether they wanted to go to work.

"The chief medical officer has been saying where people can work from home they should do so, and here we have a government building that should be showing leadership and they still had their employees report to work this morning. That is unacceptable," Earle said.

NLMA to employers: Stop sending workers to get a doctor's note

On Thursday, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association said employers should not be sending workers to their family doctors in order to get a note to work from home. 

"This places an unnecessary burden on the health-care system at a time where we all need to focus on reducing the spread of COVID-19," reads the statement.

However, it doesn't address patients asking for a note via appointments over the phone, which some doctors have continued to do amid the pandemic. 

"In keeping with the direction issued by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, anyone who is able to work from home should do so. Physicians of the province call on all employers to follow that direction to protect our citizens,"  reads the statement.

Thousands of people are in isolation in the St. John's metro region, as contact tracing and testing continues for an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus that saw a record number of new cases, 53, on Wednesday.

Metro-area schools have closed to in-class learning, a slew of businesses have been ordered to close, and special measures orders have been issued to help contain the spread of the virus.

The employee who tested positive is self-isolating, while co-workers considered close contact have also been advised to isolate and arrange for testing.

The email from Norris states, "The risk is considered low for all other west block employees and visitors," but advises everyone to continue following public health guidelines for sanitization, physical distancing and self-monitoring for symptoms.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.