President Hesse Demands Immediate and Urgent Employer Response to Omicron Threat

Below is an urgent letter going out to all employers from President Thomas Hesse regarding the threat posed to our members by the Omicron variant.

Dear Sir / Madam,

I am the President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401 here in Alberta.

Put simply, I am deeply concerned about the safety of our members in your workplace.

The Omicron variant is upon us. While I am not a doctor, evidence seems to demonstrate that this virus is highly transmissible. The Government of Alberta is reporting record case counts. Many continue to become seriously ill, be admitted to ICUs, and sadly, to die.

Some speculate that Omicron is less virulent than other COVID-19 variants. Yet, Omicron’s transmissibility is such that it has and will continue to impact an enormous cross-section of our population, including the workers that you employ.

The sheer numbers extrapolated could in fact have a more deadly outcome than prior variants like Delta.

I fear that we are standing at the precipice of yet another devastating tragedy associated with this pandemic. I cannot sit idly by without working to mitigate the potential outcomes. An enhanced threat surely warrants an enhanced response.

Frankly, serious mistakes were made when government and employers first faced the pandemic. Those mistakes resulted in nothing less than serious illness and the loss of human life.

I plead with you not to make the same mistakes nearly two years later. Surely, we have learned something in the time that has passed since March 2020.

Please immediately advise what steps you are taking to meet this threat:

  • Have you had an independent ventilation and air quality assessment done?
  • Are you providing employees with masks of a nature and quality that meet the transmissibility threat of the Omicron variant?
  • Have you adjusted your approach to sick pay and absences to ensure that workers can comfortably stay home if they are symptomatic without loss of income?
  • Are you making rapid testing available to your employees to detect and mitigate outbreaks as quickly as possible?

We ask that you share relevant data with us and that you do so immediately.

Confirmed COVID-19 case data is important, but obviously, we need a more thorough tracking in order to be effective. Unfortunately, workers have little or no access to testing. Please provide us with data about absenteeism rates both immediately and on an ongoing basis.

Please make urgent efforts to schedule more frequent health and safety meetings and to ensure that representatives of our union are invited to those meetings with a full ability to participate. Please also relax rules around employee punctuality due to the severe impact that Omicron is having on public transportation.

In the context of Omicron, we request information regarding your current approach to employee vaccination. More specifically, are you making arrangements to provide on-site booster shots to staff who wish to access them? Pending workplace booster vaccination programs, employees should be given paid time off to get their booster shots.

If you are a retail employer, we must demand a different approach than what we are seeing in some stores currently. Why is there no scrutiny at doorways around masking? Why aren’t customer counts being pursued without compromise? These are just a few examples of our ongoing concerns.

It is clear that the Omicron variant is starting to deeply penetrate and affect our population. Unfortunately, due to so-called “COVID fatigue” or out of simple laziness, I am noting that some are being disturbingly dismissive of this threat.

COVID fatigue cannot be an excuse to abandon working people whose courage and commitment have kept our society functioning.

We dismiss the threat posed by the Omicron variant at our own peril. Let us not look back at this moment months later and agonize over what we could have done. I say this to you plainly – you need to do something to address this threat and you need to do it now.

I have conferred with Secretary Treasurer Richelle Stewart on these matters, and she shares my concerns. We are both committed to pursuing the absolute safety of our members.

Occupational Health and Safety law and our collective agreements outline the necessary obligation for employers to keep workers safe. A change in circumstances does not obviate that obligation. In fact, the accepted and troubling evidence around transmissibility truly demands a heightened and enhanced response.

Please respond to the questions and requests contained in this correspondence on an urgent basis.

Our union continues to monitor this matter and is committed to advocating for our members at the highest level and in the most passionate way. We hope you share our approach in pursuing the absolute safety of our members and your employees.

Thomas Hesse
UFCW Local 401