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Who is essential? Unions in Ontario want to know as COVID-19 vaccine rollout picks up speed

Ontario says front-line essential workers will be inoculated as part of Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, but it has yet to define who will be on the list and when they will get the jab. Unions, however, are already wondering whether their members will qualify.

Province hasn't provided any clarity yet, says union leader who represents grocery store workers

A sign directs shoppers in a grocery store in Toronto. Unions are seeking clarity from the Ontario government as to whether their members are considered essential under Phase 2 of the province's COVID-19 rollout. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Ontario says front-line essential workers will be inoculated as part of Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, but the province has yet to define who will be on the list and when they will get the jab.

Unions that represent workers who deal with the public every day, however, are already wondering whether their members will qualify.

Joel Thelosen, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada Local 1006A, said the union would like to know which workers will be deemed essential during the pandemic. UFCW represents thousands of grocery store and food processing workers in Ontario.

"As of this time, we have not been able to get any clarification from the Ontario government as to who fits their front-line worker criteria for Phase 2," Thelosen told CBC News on Monday.

"We are seeking more clarity generally."

Thelosen said members are feeling anxious and stressed as they continue to work during the pandemic and are eager to be vaccinated.

"Grocery workers have been on the front lines since day one of the pandemic. As a result, they are exposed to hundreds of members of the public every time they go into work. They deserve the vaccine for protection and should be considered priority recipients," he said.

Thelosen said the union has faith in Ontario public health officials to determine who first should get the vaccine, but grocery store workers should be considered part of the equation.

"When Ontario locks down, they still go to work and proudly serve their communities."

Janitors 'are sanitizing the spaces where the illness might exist' and should be considered essential workers, according to Assya Moustaqim-Barrette, spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union Local 2. (Submitted by Jess Grove)

Assya Moustaqim-Barrette, spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, said the union wants to make sure janitors who work outside of health-care settings are on the essential list. The local represents thousands of janitors in Ontario.

"The majority of our union members have been going into work every day since the start of the pandemic. They have been working hard, keeping spaces safe and clean, while facing the risk of contracting COVID-19," she said. 

"We feel that if the Ford government has an interest in quickly mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and ending the pandemic, it should definitely prioritize workers who are often in contact with other people as well as spaces in which these people are," she said.

That means making the vaccine available as soon as possible to front-line workers, including janitors in settings outside health care, she said.

"They are sanitizing the spaces where the illness might exist. They are cleaners and janitors and so it makes complete sense that someone who is interacting with potentially contaminated surfaces should have a vaccine to prevent them from getting sick," she said.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, says the province has not yet answered the question of who is essential when it comes to workers and its vaccine rollout. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, told reporters on Monday that the province has not yet decided who is essential when it comes to workers in Ontario and its vaccine rollout. That question is under consideration by the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force, he said.

Williams, however, said he understands the need for clarity as the vaccine rollout picks up speed.

"At the same time, everyone has some perspective of why there is a criticality that they would be vaccinated right away," Williams said.

"What is a good thing, I think, is that we have a real strong desire of everyone to get vaccinated. I would really applaud that. We would like to get that done as soon as possible."

Phase 2 projected to run from April to July

The province is now working through what it calls immediate and next priority groups as part of Phase 1. 

On its website, it says priority groups in Phase 2 include:

  • Older adults, starting with those 79 years of age and decreasing in five-year increments. 
  • People who live and work in high-risk congregate settings, for example, shelters.
  • Front-line essential workers, including first responders, education workers and the food processing industry.
  • Individuals with high-risk chronic conditions and their caregivers. 
  • Other populations and communities "facing barriers related to the determinants of health across Ontario who are at greater COVID-19 risk."

Phase 2 is expected to run from April to July, depending on vaccine supply, and an expected 8.7 million people will be vaccinated.

According to the government, the task force will use what it calls the ethical framework for COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the best available data to identify other priority groups for this phase.

With files from Lisa Naccarato

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