The COVID-19 pandemic gave most Canadians a renewed understanding and appreciation for the essential, life-saving work performed by healthcare professionals. However, early on in the crisis, this appreciation felt empty to many workers who were being denied access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and other measures to protect themselves and their patients.

One particularly stark example led the Ontario Superior Court to take the very rare step of intervening in the midst of a labour dispute, and ordering a group of employers to ensure that nurses had access to adequate PPE and other protective measures.

Background

At the height of the spread of the coronavirus in Canada, the Ontario Nurses Association presented grievances against four employers operating long-term care homes. The union maintained that these employers had violated the Collective Agreements, as well as health and safety legislation and public health directives, by withholding PPE from nurses and failing to implement necessary controls to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among residents and staff.

Because of the length of time it would take for those grievances to reach arbitration, the union also applied for an injunction in the Ontario Superior Court, seeking urgent relief while the grievances remained pending. The union asked for an Order that the employers allow nurses to make PPE decisions on an ongoing basis at the point of care, and that they isolate and cohort residents and the staff attending to them so that those who were infectious were kept separate from and treated by different nurses than those who were not. The Court heard the injunction request on April 22, and released its decision the following day.

Injunction decision

The Court’s decision paints a very grim picture of what was occurring in the long-term care homes. All four had experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, with over a hundred residents infected and more than fifty deaths. At least seven nurses had also contracted COVID-19, with one requiring hospitalization.

Despite this dire situation, the evidence before the Court was that nurses were being denied access to PPE, including N95 masks, on the grounds that they were scarce and needed to be conserved. This was clearly contrary to public health directives, which stated that, if a health care worker determines at point of care that N95 masks are necessary, they must be provided. The homes were also not isolating and cohorting infected residents and were allowing infected and non-infected residents to be cared for by the same nurses.

At the injunction hearing, the employers conceded that two of the three elements of the test for an injunction were satisfied—there was a serious issue to be tried in the underlying grievances, and there was a risk of irreparable harm if an injunction was not granted. They argued, however, that the balance of convenience favoured dismissing the application, because the risk to the nurses had to be balanced against the risks to all other staff and residents. The employers essentially argued that the nurses were trying to secure PPE for themselves to protect their own self-interest, at the expense of others.

The Court was unimpressed, to say the least, with this argument:

“I can imagine that the irony of that submission is not lost on the Applicants. One need only read the affidavits of the individual nurses in this Application record to understand that they spend their working days, in particular during the current emergency situation, sacrificing their personal interests to those of the people under their care. And given the nature of the pandemic, they do this not only for the immediate benefit of their patients but for the benefit of society at large. To suggest that their quest for the masks, protective gear, and cohorting that they view as crucial to the lives and health of themselves and their patients represents a narrow, private interest seems to sorely miss the mark.”

The Court concluded: “Where the lives of nurses and patients are placed at risk, the balance of convenience favours those measures that give primacy to the health and safety of medical personnel and those that they treat.” The Court ordered that the employers comply with the public health directives, including providing nurses with access to fitted N95 facial respirators and other appropriate PPE when assessed by a nurse at point of care to be appropriate and required.

Extraordinary measures for extraordinary times

An injunction is a very unusual legal remedy, and the injunction in this case was particularly unusual. The fact that the Court felt compelled to intervene in the middle of a labour dispute—something it is generally reluctant to do—and order the employers to take active steps to protect staff and residents is a reflection of what exceptional times were are currently living in.

It is also a testament to the seriousness of COVID-19 and the importance of frontline workers during the unprecedented crisis that virus has caused. On that topic, two important points are worth noting.

First, the nurses who sought this injunction, as well as other public sector workers in Ontario, are all currently subject to Bill 124, legislation that caps increases to pay and benefits to a total of 1% per year for a period of three years. The Ontario government has disingenuously claimed it is unable to intervene and override this cap. However, in addition to obviously having the power to repeal the legislation, Bill 124 authorizes the government to exempt any collective agreement from the cap. Given the consensus that healthcare workers are nothing short of heroes in the current context, the government should clearly grant exemptions and allow these workers to be paid what they deserve.

Second, the Ontario government recently announced that it will allow agricultural workers to continue working even if they test positive for COVID-19, provided they are asymptomatic. Like the situation the nurses faced in these long-term care homes, this decision appears to be clearly guided by societal, economic considerations, rather than the best interests of the workers. The agricultural workers and their advocates may want to explore whether similar extraordinary legal action is appropriate to protect themselves, and the Ontario government should heed the lesson from the Court’s decision in the ONA case—the broader public good cannot come at the expense of the health and safety of workers.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without an assessment of your individual circumstances.]