Why Are So Many City Workers Still Grinding It Out Side by Side?

Mayor Stewart just reared his head to announce that businesses not complying with social distancing could face fines up to $50,000.

If that’s what it takes to enforce safety during Pandemic 2020, then great—but it’s a curious measure to take when the City of Vancouver’s own workers are still on job sites and coming into the office.

One park board employee, who asked to remain anonymous, reported that his team is still expected to be operating in full capacity, despite a State of Emergency being declared by City Council last week. “We have hundreds of people in the same building, share one lunch room, pile three people into one vehicle, and are called into one room every single day for ‘updates’ on all things including social distancing,” says Jeremy Bunton (not his real name). “There’s no access to running water most of the day as we work often outside, and no hand sanitizer available.” 

“The city manager says the social distancing directive doesn’t apply to its thousands of employees,” says Bunton. “I’m so frustrated. And scared.”

In an internal email from city manager Sadhu Johnson to employees on March 18, he wrote, “The distancing advice is not a formal directive for essential services such as ours,” pointing out that the role of public servants is unfortunately to play a critical role in keeping the city “safe, secure and prosperous.”

While certain city functions does of course need to carry on, the question at this point is: what is actually essential? Between the City, VPD and VPL personnel, there are approximately 7,500 regular staff and about 3,700 temporary staff. How many of them should still be at work at this point? To a lay person, tasks like maintaining shrubs and tree planting at this point doesn’t exactly seem like a critical function, especially if it’s putting staff at risk of close contact, and yet landscaping crews are still out there working together daily. “Is it worth it to weed and cut grass?” asks Bunton. 

While community centres, pools, fitness centres and other public gathering spots have closed in the past week, many departments continue business as usual: there has been no change to garbage collection; development and licensing inspections are continuing as normal; the horticulture department has been declared an essential service.

In an email to VanMag, a city spokesperson did not respond to questions regarding landscaping as an essential service, but assured us that “The health and safety of our staff remains a top priority” and that “social distancing needs are balanced with safety in providing essential service delivery.”

The official COV statement is that staff has been provided with important health and safety reminders, based on guidance from health authorities, including information around workplace cleanliness, guidance for self-isolation and monitoring oneself and staff from illness. Yes, where work-from-home resources allow, city staff have been encouraged to work from home, but for those with hands-on tasks, telecommuting isn’t an option.

Of course, being asked to work instead of being laid off is just one side of a lose-lose situation. The sad fact is that when city jobs have been put on pause (such as community centre services), staff can only be paid for so long. Another internal email from the city discloses that a working group is addressing impacts of service closures—those in suspended operations roles are only slated at this point to be paid for two weeks.

As the situation changes hourly, who knows how long City workers will continue to be on the job—and it’s hard for anyone to know what the impact of any of our decisions will be right now. But if an institution is ready to hand out fines to businesses not playing it safe, should it really be risking staff exposure itself?