Toronto·BRAMPTON

Brampton union heads, employers, frustrated with lack of support as they brace for staffing shortages

The latest restrictions announced to blunt the spread of the Omicron variant in Ontario have many businesses and organizations in Brampton worried about staffing, as the premier warns of 20 to 30 per cent absenteeism in all sectors.

Premier warns of 20 to 30 per cent worker absenteeism across all sectors

ATU Local 1573, representing Brampton transit employees, says it's bracing for more staffing shortages as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads through the community. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Union representatives and employers in Brampton are frustrated and confused about what they say is a lack of support from the province in the latest round of restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Premier Doug Ford announced new measures Monday in an effort to deal with the highly transmissible omicron variant, while noting that a "tsunami" of cases is expected to result in 20 to 30 per cent absenteeism for employees in all sectors across Ontario.

In response, labour representatives and employers across major sectors in Brampton are frustrated with yet another round of closures and restrictions and worry about staffing in the coming weeks.

"We're no longer a priority to be tested," said Frank Vani, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1573. "There's so many variables, everybody's so confused on how we can proceed."

The union represents Brampton Transit workers. Vani said there are nearly 250 employees off work right now out of a total staff of 1,200. Of those, 30 are off because they can't get tested and the remainder are either people who have gotten sick, been exposed, or are immunocompromised, he said.

Brampton Transit operating 'at reduced levels'

In anticipation of higher absenteeism, Vani said the union has already held meetings on the possibility of reducing service.

"It's something that we're going to have to look at, reducing some service on some routes and eliminating service on some secondary routes altogether," he said, although he added that the plan is on the "back burner" for now.

In a response to questions from CBC News, Brampton Transit confirmed that it's "operating at reduced levels until further notice." It also said it is "experiencing some absenteeism related to COVID-19.

"The team continues to monitor resourcing levels and customer demand, and will adjust service levels as required, while ensuring employee and rider safety," Brampton Transit spokesperson Megan Ball said.

Jason Rosso, the owner of J. Red and Co. restaurant in Brampton, says his employees need more help from the federal government. (CBC)

'We've done what the government has asked'

At his Brampton restaurant J.Red and Co, owner Jason Rosso said he had a staff of 42 people before the pandemic. It went down to 23 after the latest reopening in the fall, and now with the newest restrictions, he's only able to keep a third of his staff employed for takeout service. The uncertainty in the coming weeks means he can't schedule staff for the long-term either.

"I just don't see us being back open again on January 26," Rosso said. "I just don't think it's going to happen, if we're lucky to maybe open by the spring, this is going to carry on, I see a second coming of 2020."

He says it's frustrating to be closed again, despite having taken all the public health precautions. 

"What more do you need? It's like trying to squeeze blood from a stone, we've done what the government has asked us to do," Rosso said.

And while he's taken advantage of federal business supports, he says his employees need more help from Ottawa.

"They don't have subsidy-wise a really good program for employees of hospitality," he said. "I'm going to do the best I can to keep some of my team members employed."

'Punch in the gut'

In a news release on Jan. 3, the Peel District School Board said "we are also continuing to work closely with Peel Public Health (PPH) to implement the direction given by the Ministry of Education, in an effort to help ensure students return to school safely."

But in response to Ford's warning of staffing shortages, Peel Elementary Teachers' Local president Gail Bannister-Clarke said it felt like a "punch in the gut" when the premier used the term "absenteeism."

"It sounds like people are just taking a day off; that's not what's happening in our schools," she said. "It's people being sick, and people being directed to isolate."

Gail Bannister-Clarke, the president of the Peel Elementary Teachers’ Local, says hearing the premier use the word 'absenteeism' to describe teachers who are off work due to COVID-19 was a 'punch in the gut.' (Submitted by Gail Bannister-Clarke)

Peel schools have had issues with a lack of supply teachers to cover classrooms, she added.

"We've had programs collapse, we've had support staff needing to cover for home room teachers because we don't have enough teachers in the building," Bannister-Clarke said.

"We've had lunchroom supervisors come in to monitor classrooms, we've had principals, vice principals, from high schools, coming in to cover classes, because so many teachers are home sick and isolating.".

She said more N95 masks, improved HEPA filtration systems, reduced class sizes to allow for distancing, and a campaign to get children vaccinated can help improve safety in schools and reduce the number of staff getting sick and not coming in. 

"Unless there are really the changes that need to happen over the next two weeks, we'll be locked down again," she said.

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