Workers at B.C. prison refused work because of COVID-19 concerns before outbreak was declared
The Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge is seen in this photo from the B.C. government website.
VANCOUVER -- Employees at a B.C. prison were sounding the alarm about COVID-19 cases among inmates there five days before health officials formally declared an outbreak.
Six employees at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge exercised their right to refuse unsafe work on Friday, Jan. 22 and Saturday, Jan. 23, according to the union that represents them.
Among the workers' concerns were the fact that - at the time - six of the 14 inmates in a unit had tested positive for the coronavirus, but were not being separated from the unit's other eight residents.
The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union said its members also had concerns about the absence of Plexiglas barriers at their desk, the number of inmates let out for exercise at once and the possibility of bringing the coronavirus home to their families.
A WorkSafeBC inspection of the facility triggered by the employees' refusal to work concluded that some of the concerns raised were outside the inspection's scope and that the rest did not constitute an "undue hazard." The full text of the WorkSafeBC inspection report can be found here.
"We're disappointed in the outcome of the report, to be quite frank," said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith in an interview with CTV News Vancouver.
"We know that the refusal of unsafe work, this is a right that is afforded to all workers, but it is definitely not a right that working people use lightly," she said. "Refusing to do your job has inherent risk in it."
She said corrections workers, in particular, are required to assess risk on a daily basis as part of their jobs.
"This is something that they're very good at, and when we have officers who say, 'You know what? This is not safe. This is putting me at risk,' we stand 100 per cent behind them making that choice," Smith said.
On Wednesday, Fraser Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak at the prison, saying nine inmates and two staff members there had tested positive. As of Saturday, Jan. 23, there were seven inmates and one staff member who had contracted the disease.
From the union's perspective, the formal declaration of an outbreak doesn't - and shouldn't - change the expectations workers have about safety, Smith said.
"This wasn't a first step that our members took," she said. "We have been working with (Corrections BC) since the very beginning of the pandemic to push them to put in measures to keep working people and the inmates safe during this pandemic."
Lack of Plexiglas barriers is a province-wide issue that the BCGEU has been pushing the province to address, Smith said.
She also pointed to isolating COVID-19-positive prisoners as an area that could be improved, noting that residents of other congregate living situations - such as long-term care homes - are isolated when they test positive.
In the WorkSafeBC inspection report, the inspector notes that the whole unit that the inmates live in has been isolated from the rest of the prison to prevent the spread of the virus to other wards. Keeping the cohort of prisoners together, rather than separating the ones who test positive, is a decision the prison made on the advice of the health authority, according to WorkSafeBC.
Smith said employees feeling unsafe at work should be a concern for their employers even if the issues the workers are raising don't meet WorkSafeBC's definition of "undue risk."
"I think now that there are these more-transmissible variants of COVID-19, what we want to see is we want to see the employer overreact," she said. "Not just meet minimum standards of safety, but go above and beyond."
CTV News reached out to BC Corrections for comment on the workers' concerns. The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General responded by referring to a fact sheet detailing COVID-19 policies currently in place in the correctional system and noting that WorkSafeBC's investigation of the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre found the protocols in place to be effective.