Contractors confused by Ontario's pandemic restrictions

Local contractors say their industry is in turmoil because few can agree on what constitutes essential work for home renovations, and many complain they can't get a straight answer from the province.

Home renovations fall under essential work, but some say they're getting conflicting information

Home renovations are considered essential work in Ontario and may continue throughout the lockdown, but contractors say they're getting mixed signals when they call a provincial hotline for businesses. This stock still shows an electrician fixing wires. (XiXinXing/Shutterstock )

Local contractors say their industry is in turmoil because few can agree on what constitutes essential work for home renovations, and many complain they can't get a straight answer from the province.

On April 16, the Ontario government announced that all "non-essential construction" would be shut down as part of the enhanced stay-at-home order, but many in the industry were unclear about what that meant.

"There's a ton of confusion out there ... about exactly what 'essential construction' means," said Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

Having access to that work is key to keep the business alive.- Ryan Mallough, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

But according to provincial guidelines, all residential renovation work including landscaping is considered essential.

"Residential construction activities, projects and related services are considered essential," confirmed Kalem McSween, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. 

Different interpretations

But for some, that seems to contradict the very notion of a stay-at-home order, leading to lingering confusion within the industry.

Contractor Steeven Severe, 28, interprets the rules as allowing only essential, ongoing jobs such as unfinished kitchen and primary bathroom renovations. Severe said he's postponed basement jobs that didn't meet that bar.

"It's hurting me a lot because those are my biggest money-makers," he said.

Contractor Steeven Severe says he's concerned the province could suddenly impose further restrictions. (Steeven Severe)

Severe is worried the province, under pressure to control the spread of COVID-19 on job sites, will clamp down further, and warns contractors in the middle of basement renos and powder room refits that they might get caught out.

"I'd tell those guys to stop because it's not essential," he said.

Wary of snitches

Rick Boyer of Boyer Boys Home Maintenance and Repair interprets the rules as limiting him to emergency repairs.

"If someone has a ball go through their window, I would replace that," said Boyer. But he's postponed a job to build an outdoor cat shelter, or "catio," after paying $1,500 up front for the materials. 

"If one of the neighbours is jealous of the fact that you're getting something done, they'll call 311," he said. "The next thing you know, we've got to deal with the bylaw guys."

Boyer said in a year that's so far netted him just $900, that could spell bankruptcy.

"If I was to get a fine for anything it would just shut me down."

Ottawa contractor Rick Boyer is limiting himself to jobs he considers essential during the lockdown. (Submitted by Rick Boyer)

He's not paranoid: Ottawa's 311 operators have been fielding calls from residents complaining about what they perceive as non-essential work going on in their neighbourhoods.

"It is the responsibility of the contractor and permit holder to inquire with the province on whether their construction activity is essential," wrote Roger Chapman, the city's bylaw chief, in an email to CBC. Violating provincial orders could earn a contractor an $880 fine, Chapman wrote.

Some pulling the plug

The confusion comes at an especially bad time for contractors, as housebound families across the city look to upgrade their homes, leading to unprecedented demand.

Still, erring on the side of caution, some contractors have pulled the plug on all jobs.

Scott MacRitchie, 53, does painting, drywall, deck repair and other small projects. He's also had a close family member and several friends contract COVID-19.

"I can't even sit with my father and have coffee 10 feet away on my deck, but I'm allowed to go in and change the colour of somebody's dining room? Doesn't really make sense in my mind," MacRitchie said.

MacRitchie said he called a provincial hotline and was told anything residential is good to go. But he said other contractors dialled the same number and were told that applies only to jobs started before April 17. The confusion is "disheartening," MacRitchie said.

High-flying private contractor Scott MacRitchie says the current rules don't make a lot of sense. (Scott MacRitchie)

Employees confused, too

The ministry clarified to CBC that even jobs agreed to or started after April 17 can go ahead. 

"It comes down to allowing economic activity to continue," said Mallough. "There is zero financial support at the provincial level for [contractors]. Having access to that work is key to keep the business alive."

Still, some business owners say neither they nor their employees are certain.

"It is definitely confusing," said Rob Sorokan, a longtime contractor who heads up 20/20 Home Improvements in Ottawa, and who has been limiting his crews to projects that were already started before April 17. 

"I've had my guys call me saying, 'Listen, are we still coming to work? Is it still OK? Are we going to get in trouble?'" Sorokan said.

Sorokan said he's more worried about COVID-19 now than at any point during the pandemic, but he ensures his tradespeople are masked and maintain their distance from one another while on the job.

"I talk with my guys and they're generally OK," said Sorokan. "Obviously, they want to work, so they're going to tell me they're OK, right?"

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