How we covered unfair and unhealthy working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic
In 2020, Canadians learned that a deadly virus isn’t the only threat to the public during a global pandemic — it also had the effect of amplifying existing social and economic inequalities.
During the pandemic, PressProgress dug into stories about issues impacting workers and vulnerable Canadians. Through our COVID-19 Special Investigations series, we prioritized stories on topics that weren’t getting the attention they deserved from Canada’s old corporate media outlets.
We went around corporate spokespersons and spoke directly to front line workers in real Canadian workplaces to draw attention sick leave policies at big fast food chains and unhealthy working conditions in meat packing plants and warehouses.
According to Canadians for Tax Fairness, while governments incurred deficits and working Canadians lost jobs, 34 of Canada’s biggest corporations recorded massive profits. Many of these same companies also made headlines for cutting workers’ pay, imposing overly-strict sick leave rules and flaunting public health guidance.
Here’s seven examples of big corporations we held accountable in 2020:
In March, an exclusive investigation by PressProgress found Tim Hortons franchises were forcing workers to provide doctors’ notes to prove they were really sick just to take unpaid sick leave during the pandemic.
“You have five days a year and after that, you’re fired,” one Tim Hortons supervisor told PressProgress. “It’s common for minimum wage.”
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) March 13, 2020
PressProgress’ original reporting made an impact.
Not only did the hashtag “#BoycottTimHortons” trend number one across Canada, but the following week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford temporarily banned employers from asking for doctor’s notes during the pandemic.
“The Tories’ move comes amid widespread criticism directed at Tim Hortons, after the news agency PressProgress reported that some locations were requiring employees to get doctors’ notes in order to call in sick during the pandemic.,” reported the Canadian Press.
Tim Hortons also said it would create a $40 million fund to support sick workers during the pandemic in response to PressProgress‘ reporting.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) March 14, 2020
Despite those assurances from Tim Hortons’ corporate head office, some franchises still did not appear to get the message.
Multiple managers at Tim Hortons franchises owned by UCP Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, who recently came under fire for vacationing in Hawaii while her province was in lockdown, told PressProgress they had been given no information about their sick leave policies during the pandemic.
Multiple managers at a UCP MLA’s Tim Hortons locations told us they’re “not sure” what their sick leave policies are during the coronavirus pandemic.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) March 23, 2020
As a result of the public scrutiny PressProgress‘ journalism focused on Tim Hortons’ labour practices, Tim Hortons’ parent company, Restaurant Brands International, faced internal pressure from its own shareholders to implement new board-level oversight over working conditions at Tim Hortons.
Unfortunately, management at RBI brushed off the proposal: “We don’t think now is the time to be talking about (that) shareholder proposal,” RBI told PressProgress.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) March 24, 2020
Metro grocery stores dropped its doctors’ note policy after PressProgress contacted the company about an internal memo we obtained showing that, in some cases, the company was contradicting advice from public health authorities.
“Things have evolved a lot,” a Metro spokesperson told PressProgress.
NEW: Metro grocery stores drops policy asking workers to get doctor’s notes if they think they have COVID-19.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) March 16, 2020
To date, over 400 COVID-19 cases have been connected to workers at Amazon’s massive warehouses in Ontario.
Early in the pandemic, PressProgress drew attention to concerns being raised by workers in those same facilities about the company using surveillance technology to pressure workers to work faster and the company’s decision to cut paid sick leave for workers in the middle of the pandemic.
PressProgress was also first to report that Amazon was cancelling hero pay for its workers in May, explaining that the company had taken sufficient steps to ensure the health and safety of its workers.
NEW: Amazon confirms two more workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at one of its Ontario warehouses.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) May 22, 2020
Not only did Western Canadian grocery store chain Save-On-Foods create unsafe working conditions by refusing to require customers wear masks while shopping, Save-On-Foods also cut hero pay for frontline grocery workers.
Speaking to PressProgress in June, the company’s billionaire CEO Jim Pattison claimed he was powerless to stop the pay cut — three months later, Pattison, who is the sixth richest man in Canada, bragged that business has never been better.
Despite rhetoric early in the pandemic thanking frontline grocery workers for their sacrifices, Canada’s major grocery retailers including Sobey’s, Loblaws, Metro, Safeway, Walmart and others have cancelled their pandemic pay increases.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) June 8, 2020
This summer, PressProgress spoke to textile workers about working conditions inside Canada Goose’s Winnipeg factory where personal protective equipment is being manufactured for Canadian health workers.
Workers told PressProgress that the company asked the factory’s 500 or so workers to share 10 portable toilets for three weeks. One worker told PressProgress their spouse would pick her up on breaks and drive them home so they could use a more hygienic washroom while others kept containers in their car trunks.
“Culture of fear.”
Workers at Canada Goose factory that produces PPE for frontline healthcare workers fear losing their jobs for raising concerns about unhealthy working conditions.https://t.co/wMLjy0y5QC #mbpoli #canlab
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) August 21, 2020
Cargill’s slaughterhouse in High River, Alberta, which produces half of Canada entire beef supply, was also the site of the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in North America during the early months of the pandemic.
In May, the union representing the plant’s workers told PressProgress that the company ignored health and safety concerns about the lack of social distancing inside the plant. The union also told PressProgress that the company’s offer of bonus pay to workers for perfect attendance gave workers an incentive to show up to work sick when they should have stayed home.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) May 15, 2020
Back in April, workers at 29 Dollar Tree locations across British Columbia told PressProgress that management was failing to implement measures to allow workers to socially distance despite what the company claimed publicly.
Other workers said Dollar Tree was “not actively” sanitizing shopping baskets and store managers reportedly told them they could still show up to work if they’re sick.
Dollar Tree workers say their managers are not following healthy workplace rules.
— PressProgress (@pressprogress) April 30, 2020