May 27th, 2020 - Study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic
Senator Poirier: Good morning, witnesses. Thank you for being here and for your presentations.
My first question is for Mr. Jeff Wilkins. The Joliette Institution for Women is probably the federal correctional facility most heavily hit by COVID-19. I have a three-part question. Can you tell us how many agents or other staff members of the Joliette Institution have been infected? Do you know why so many agents have been infected? Is it because of the layout of the facility? What lessons should we learn from what happened in Joliette, going forward?
Mr. Wilkins: Yes, I can give you an update.
At Joliette Institution, currently we don’t have any correctional officers that have tested positive, but at its height I believe it was around 70.
I can tell you that Joliette Institution, like most female-sector institutions, is a wide-open facility. One thing we’ve learned since COVID struck is that we need to have the ability to distance ourselves from one another. It’s very difficult inside of an institution that is based on a housing type of framework, where there are general communal areas in which inmates will congregate with one another. That is one of the main reasons that I believe institutions such as Joliette and some of our minimum-security institutions across the country have been hit hard when this virus enters the facility.
In terms of lessons learned, of course, there are different infrastructure layouts that are more practical in terms of preventing spread of COVID-19. However, I don’t see the service moving in the direction to change the complete infrastructure. This is an unprecedented time and, for the most part, these institutions are built around rehabilitation and a communal setting, so they lend themselves more to rehabilitation.
Senator Poirier: Thank you.
My second question is also for you, Mr. Wilkins. You sent a letter to Minister Blair, requesting adequate supply of test kits for the purpose of testing critical staff. As of today, close to two months later, has the minister responded to your letter, and have you received an adequate supply of test kits?
Mr. Wilkins: We’ve not had a response in writing by the minister, but we have spoken. It’s only now that we’re seeing, starting in the Quebec region and also in the Pacific region, that random tests will be offered for staff at the institutional level. Of course, that is something we had been asking for, and it’s almost two months later. This is beginning to rear its head, because I think society in general has learned that asymptomatic testing will be important, and it’s beginning there now.
Senator Poirier: Thank you.
Are we ready for the second wave that we’re hearing about? In your opinion, has the government made the necessary adjustments to ensure Canada’s correctional facilities are ready for that second wave?
Mr. Wilkins: As I mentioned in my opening comments, we can’t go home; we have to make sure our borders are protected. It all depends on the actions we take now as to whether we’ll be prepared for a second wave.
Of course, effectively, if you can keep everybody from entering the facility, you’re going to keep COVID from coming out. However, we have members that have to go back and forth to work. If we’re looking to reopen and brace ourselves for a second wave, we have to be willing to shut down, just as the rest of Canada is right now.
I do believe that, when it comes to personal protective equipment, all of those things exist. We are prepared in that way. Of course, we need to prepare ourselves to make sure social distancing continues to happen in the institution in order to prevent any spread if the virus does enter.
Senator Poirier: Thank you very much.
Senator Poirier: Thank you to all three of you for presentations. They were greatly appreciated.
My question is for the representative from the Canadian Support Workers Association. We’ve heard of the importance of testing in a safe reopening of our economy and our social interaction. For the long-term care workers and the residents, how accessible was the testing for them? Did they need to show symptoms to be tested?
Ms. Ferrier: They did not need to be shown symptoms to be tested. Here in the province of Ontario, I know that last week or earlier this week — time is melding together through COVID-19 — the government announced that all residents in long-term care facilities have been now tested for the COVID-19, which was a huge feat for the Ontario government. I know that we are still awaiting our long-term care personal support workers to be all tested. It’s hard when they can’t get to them all, all at the same time. I forget the beginning of your question, if you don’t mind asking that one more time.
Senator Poirier: How accessible was the testing for them? Did they need to show symptoms to be tested? Following that, what was the procedure when they were waiting for the results of the tests for those who were tested? Were they sent home with pay or did they have to work until their results were received? In most cases, it would take days, if not weeks, before the results were available. I want to know what the procedure was.
Ms. Ferrier: Absolutely. Basically what happened was if they were tested, they were sent home. No, they were not paid to go home. If they were asymptomatic, meaning they were not showing any symptoms, they could still go to work. Whether they were COVID positive or not, a lot of them actually went back to work and worked until they got their results. Many of them also did sit at home, and they did not receive any money. In order to get the testing prior to Ontario saying that all of long-term care homes had priority, it was very difficult for them to get the testing unless they did show symptoms. I hope that answers your question.
Senator Poirier: My next question is for the Workers’ Action Centre. We are seeing slowly but surely the economy opening up again in various parts of the country. I’m curious, have you heard if workers are reluctant to return to work? If yes, what were their reasons?
Ms. Ladd: Yes, we operate a hotline in many different languages. We do webinars in many different communities to talk to workers about what are their workplace rights and what are the issues that are facing them. Absolutely, people are very fearful of returning to work for a number of reasons. One, first of all, they are afraid of going back to work, going on crowded public transportation buses to get to work and knowing that they won’t be able to socially distance and then going back to work not having the confidence in their employer that their employer will actually implement the health and safety recommendations that have been recommended by public health or by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. They are also reluctant to go back because many of them have children at home or elders or maybe there’s someone who is immunocompromised that live in their households, and they’re incredibly worried about bringing home that infection.
Many people are going back to work to part-time work. One of the reasons why I was wanting to describe the kinds of labour conditions is, for instance, in many of the sectors we are seeing things open back up for workers. A lot of those jobs are part time, they’re low wage, there are no benefits, there are definitely no paid sick days, and so people are also concerned about going back to work and getting sick but not having any paid sick days, and then going back to work with low rates of pay. It is in some ways beneficial to get CERB because at least you have a guaranteed income. You have the ability to pay your bills and you don’t have to deal with juggling two or three jobs and trying to make ends meet.