TORONTO — The union representing Toronto's public transit workers wants them to be given protective gear, the lack of which prompted dozens of drivers to refuse to work recently.
More than three dozen drivers with the Toronto Transit Commission refused to work on Wednesday morning, according to the union and the TTC.
"Our members are scared, and the longer this goes on the more cases will appear," said Carlos Santos, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. Santos noted 17 TTC workers have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.
"I think the TTC does have a responsibility to make our workers feel safe — and if making them feel safe is providing them with PPE, then give them PPE."
An inspector with the Ministry of Labour ruled the drivers must return to work because the situation didn't meet the conditions of a work refusal, Santos said. The workers have lodged a complaint with the ministry in response, he said.
The ministry has made similar rulings for provincial jail guards who have refused to work over the lack of protective gear.
TTC spokesman Stuart Green said the inspector cited multiple measures implemented to help protect transit operators from COVID-19, including Plexiglas barricades, blocking off of seats immediately behind the operator, and the use of rear-door boarding.
But Santos said transit operators are in proximity with thousands of people per day and masks should have been provided months ago to make staff feel safe.
The TTC said it's in the process of acquiring reusable and washable masks for all staff, but it is weeks away from being able to distribute them.
TTC spokesman Kadeem Griffiths said Wheel-Trans operators, who provide transport to people with disabilities, are the only operators currently being given face masks.
"They work with customers one-on-one, so they get masks and gloves," said Griffiths, who said there are some safety measures in place for other workers.
"We have hand sanitizer available to operators, and in stations we have cleaning happening near constantly."
Mayor John Tory said he's confident the TTC will be able to resolve the issue with employees.
"TTC operators are doing important work during this pandemic and I know the TTC is working to ensure that they are safe and protected – as the Ministry of Labour continues to confirm," said Tory.
"I'm confident that the ongoing discussions between the TTC and its employees will result in a resolution that will continue to keep employees both safe and comfortable as they perform their duties."
In the meantime, Santos said his union has started handing out masks to employees.
He said it doesn't make sense for the TTC to only give masks to Wheel-Trans workers because bus operators help passengers with disabilities, too.
"I understand there's a shortage, but we've been asking for this for a long time," said Santos, who said the union first asked for masks in January.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.
Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press