They’ve been working to keep Ontario’s lights on — and fridges, and, now that the warm weather’s here, air conditioners — and they’ve mostly been doing it from home. But Ontario Power Generation is calling its workers back into its offices to restart some of the work that has been idled since the pandemic began. And not everyone is happy about it.
Workers who spoke with TVO.org on condition of anonymity say that, although the provincially owned power company has committed to providing sufficient personal protective equipment and ensuring physical distance between workers in its offices — which will be limited to 50 per cent of their normal capacity — they don’t understand why they can’t continue working from the much safer confines of their homes.
OPG, and all workers in the electricity sector, are considered essential under the province’s emergency orders and are thus exempt from the general requirement to remain home whenever possible. Many OPG workers have, of course, never been able to work from home — the nuclear, hydro, and gas-fired power plants the Crown corporation owns don’t run themselves.
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Internal OPG memos obtained by TVO.org show that, on May 14, staff were told that they will be expected to start returning to their offices at the end of the month in order to complete work on “many business-critical initiatives that would inject millions into Ontario’s economy — everything from turbine and generator overhauls to renewable generation projects to the refurbishment of Darlington’s Unit 3.”
The massive years-long Darlington refurbishment, in particular, is a project that the government likely wants to ensure won’t get delayed more than is absolutely necessary.
OPG has several offices around the Greater Toronto Area (and has announced a plan to consolidate its 15 offices in one new office space for 2,000 workers in Darlington). The memos indicate that workers at the 889 Brock Road offices in Pickering and the 800 Kipling Avenue offices in Toronto are slated to return to work on June 1; staff will be divided into two groups and will come in on alternating weeks. Further staff were initially expected to return to work on June 15.
However, the memos also show that OPG management has delayed the return of workers to its downtown Toronto offices on 700 University Avenue, across the street from Queen’s Park. The building, once owned entirely by Ontario Hydro, now has multiple tenants and a different landlord, and the complexity of returning workers to a building with shared elevators in the city hardest-hit by COVID-19 has pushed back the return of employees until at least June 29.
OPG says that every precaution will be taken to ensure that workers will remain safe.
“As a company with an exceptional safety record, we have put in place stringent protocols to protect the health and safety of our employees including physical distancing, use of masks, thermal temperature screening, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting at all our workplaces, and asking employees to stay home if they are sick,” spokesperson Neal Kelly told TVO.org via email. “We have had no cases of workplace transmission of the COVID-19 virus.”
However, the Society of United Professionals, one of two unions representing OPG workers, still has reservations about the plan.
“Though OPG is legally within its rights, we believe that a return to work for people who can work from home should not take place until at least Stage 2 of the Ontario government's framework to reopen the provincial economy,” says Scott Travers, the union’s president. “We are also reminding members of their right to a safe and healthy workplace, including the right to refuse unsafe work should that be necessary.”
It’s a dilemma all employers are going to face as the province tries to get to Stage 2 of its reopening phase. OPG is just getting there earlier than most.