A local COVID-19 vaccine roll-out could begin sooner than expected, while eligibility for federal business assistance programs has been expanded during the pandemic – however it’s in the best interests of employers to avoid workplace toxicity and ensure that office safety plans stay up to date during the pandemic.
These were just some of the topics covered for business owners and the general public in a short but information-packed online virtual town hall presented by the South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce, Dec. 11, featuring a panel of local politicians plus experts in the health industry, law, and WorkSafe BC policy.
Hosted by chamber president Patricia LaPena and executive director Ritu Khanna, the meeting featured Cathy Wiebe, Fraser Health executive director of White Rock, South Surrey and Delta health services and Peace Arch and Delta hospitals.
Wiebe said that delivery of vaccine to Fraser Health is moving faster than expected, although highest priority for first doses will be going to health workers in long-term care facilities, with other timelines still to be determined.
“What we can expect in the next week to two weeks is there will be delivery (of vaccine) to the Abbotsford area,” she said. “The provincial government has given us choices of where and who will get the first vaccines, so in the Fraser Health are it will be going to the long-term health facilities, either Fraser Health operated, or a contracted service.”
“We really want to get the workers – it is the spread coming from staff, so we want to protect the staff so that they protect the residents we care for. As things continue to change, we will be given further direction through the provincial government and the Ministry of Health.”
Providing updates on governmental progress in dealing with the pandemic – including help for business and online local business promotion were South Surrey-White Rock MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay and newly elected MLAs Stephanie Cadieux (Surrey South) and Trevor Halford (Surrey-White Rock), plus White Rock Mayor Darryl Walker, Surrey councillors Allison Patton and Linda Annis.
Findlay noted that she and other members of the Conservative caucus have been pushing for increased eligibility and greater assistance from federal small business support programs, with some success.
These include the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS); Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) interest free and partially-forgivable loans for small businesses and not-for-profit organizations; the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS); the Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP) to cover payroll and operating costs; Black Entrepreneurship Program loans and a fund supporting small and medium-sized indigenous businesses.
Employment lawyer Sara Forte, owner of Forte Law, said that guaranteeing safety of employees is crucial, whether at a work site or for many employees working from home – where poor ergonomics are resulting in “an uptick in all kinds of muscular-skeletal injuries.”
“It looks like it’s not going to be short term that we’ll be able to come back,” she said.
She said that among “legal risks that companies should be thinking about right now” is the issue of “respect at work.”
She said that employees made to feel guilty by stressed-out co-workers or supervisors for either going home with symptoms, or picking up children from school because of potential exposure, can contribute to a “toxic work environment that is not going to be productive for your team to gel together.”
“Those (situations) can result in legal claims,” she said. “They can result in Human Rights claims, they can result in ‘prohibited action’ claims at WorkSafe.”
Forte said communication is the key for preventing such situations, even though she acknowledged it’s hard to keep up with ongoing changes and shifting health advisories.
“You need to keep up, you need to stay on top of it,” she said.
“You need to have consistent communication from your manager and supervisor right down to every single person who’s working for you. Having everyone at work understand what the expectations are, and have the skills to be able to say something about it, if that comes up, if they’ve overheard that conversation, is really critical.”
WorkSafe BC prevention services educational director Chris Back also stressed the importance of employers keeping their safety plans up to date with the latest information, noting there is a ‘what’s new?’ section on the WorkSafe website, and consultation and resources available.
In answer to a question from Khanna, Wiebe stressed that people with other health problems should not be avoiding hospitals or physicians for fear of catching COVID-19 and that many doctors’ offices are arranging telephone consultations to assess potential problems.
“Don’t be afraid to come to get the care you need or treatment – it is vital,” she said. “If there’s something going on for you we want to be able to diagnose early, versus waiting too long, due to the fear of Covid.”
She said that “multiple layers of safety protocols” now include mandatory testing at centres on the Peninsula for those being admitted to hospital or going to have surgery regardless of whether they have symptoms or are asymptomatic.
“In hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as community health-care workers, we have now shifted to all staff and all patients wearing hospital-grade masks, and for providers, they also have an extra layer of wearing goggles,” she said.
“We have definitely been leaning on WorkSafe BC recommendations for social distancing, adding plexiglas in our workplace, increasing the number of hand-sanitizer stations across our sites as well as ensuring our workers that are working in the community have access to personal protective equipment – and that also includes helping our physicians and ensuring our physicians’ offices have all that they need as well.”
Halford noted that he has introduced a private members’ bill in the legislature to cap third-party fees for deliveries for the food and beverage sector at 15 per cent, rather than the up to 30 per cent that some services have been charging companies.
And Findlay, noting the toll of economic and emotional pressures on Canadians, said that Parliament has just unanimously endorsed a motion to establish a new three-digit national suicide prevention line.
Also on the panel was Fraser Health medical microbiologist Dr. Jasmin Ahmed-Bentley who works at the lab performing tests for all 12 Fraser Health hospitals.
“We’re doing about 1500 tests per day,” she said. “We’re acquiring some more molecular equipment so that we can increase our capacity.”
She added that technologists have been working around the clock to make sure that the turnaround times for the tests are 24 hours and informational networking between BC labs is at a high level.