‘Few blanket answers’: British Columbians who feel unsafe heading back to work face uncertainty

With Phase 2 of B.C.’s plan to reopen the economy underway, thousands of British Columbians are headed back to work.

But some workers say they’re concerned about their own safety due to COVID-19 as they head back to the job.

Andrea Burton, executive director of the B.C. Dental Hygienists Association, says she’s been hearing from many of her members who feel B.C.’s safety rules aren’t detailed enough.

“Some of them feel as though they’re being asked to go back to work under conditions that they don’t consider to be safe,” she said.

“They feel a little bit threatened, that if they say to their employer ‘I don’t feel safe, I don’t want to work yet,’ that they will be let go.”

Burton said the association has consulted with lawyers, but is not getting clear answers on whether members who refuse work are putting their jobs at risk.

Hygenists aren’t the only ones.

Human resources expert Stephanie Lyster with AnswerBar.com said her company has been inundated with questions about worker rights during the COVID-19 restart.

The province put labour law protections in place back in March to prevent many people from losing their jobs for not going to work.

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But with B.C. opening back up, many workers may now find themselves in situations not covered by the protections.

“Employers had to hold the job for employees who didn’t want to come to work, she said. “During the reopening phase now, it’s not yet clear exactly what an employer can do.”

But due to the lack of clarity, Lyster also advised employers to hold off on terminating people who are reluctant to come to work, and to reach for temporary staff in the meantime.

“It’s risky … COVID has been an exception to the law,” she said.

“How long will it be an exception to the law? Until we know, we recommend you err on the side of caution, keep those lines of communication open, lead with empathy, safety, build that trust.”

In the meantime, Burton said the situation has meant plenty of stress and uncertainty for her members.

“I don’t think that dental hygienists are necessarily blaming anybody — everyone is trying to figure this out,” she said.

“But the May 19 date for some dentists and dental hygienists have put them in a real awkward spot, so if your employer said we’re back on the 19th or the 20th, everybody show up for work, what do you do if you think it’s not safe, and how do you manage that?”

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