Workers Health & Safety Centre

Unions an important support for workers during COVID, study finds

Essential worker feeling unsafe, stressed and overworked
Essential workers report feeling unsafe, stressed and overworked. Some also believe their employers are using the pandemic to justify negative changes to working conditions.
Fortunately, those who are unionized say their unions helped blunt these impacts by providing critical information, by advocating for safer working conditions and by helping to avoid job loss. These are just some of the findings from research exploring how COVID affected workers, their working relationships and how their unions supported them. A second stream of research looked at the impact of government supports for workers during COVID and compared the experience of those receiving different forms of social support.

COVID impact on workers

The COVID Economic and Social Effects Study (CESES) was conducted by McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, Department of Political Science and the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The research team was supported by funding from MITACS and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

For the studyrespondents from across Ontario, recruited on social media, completed an anonymous online survey between August and December 2020. Some 833 answered at least one section of the survey and 782 completed the section on government support received during COVID. Thirty-seven per cent were unionized (higher than the provincial and national averages) likely reflecting that two-thirds of respondents worked in the public or not-for-profit sectors which have higher rates of unionization. 

Benefits of “union safety effect”

The “union safety effect”, a short-hand phrase for the role unions play in improved occupational health and safety outcomes, has been the subject of other research, most recently in Ontario’s construction sector. Researchers suggest unions promote safer working conditions by negotiating protections in collective agreements, ensuring regulatory compliance, offering information and training to members, participating on health and safety committees, advocating for hazard controls and empowering workers to exercise their rights.
Not surprising, the McMaster study also found unionized workers were more likely to report protective workplace measures were in place during COVID including:
  • Allowance to work from home (75.8 per cent vs 64.7 per cent for non-union)
  • Access to personal protective equipment (63.4 per cent vs 53.8 per cent for non-union)
  • Employer-provided enhanced cleaning staff (30.7 per cent vs 22 per cent for non-union).

Six per cent of non-union workers reported having no safety measures in place.

Poorer conditions expand

Among all workers surveyed though, more than two-thirds reported feeling less safe at work with three-quarters reporting increased stress and anxiety working during the pandemic.
Unexpectedly, more unionized workers (76 per cent) reported feeling unsafe at work than non-union workers (68.4 per cent). Researchers believe this is because unionized workers are more likely to work in essential workplaces, often with the public, including one retail worker who reported, “During COVID-19 I have been verbally and physically assaulted by customers. Working in the retail sector I have had to deal with a lot of customers who do not pay attention to social distancing and refuse to wear a mask…”
Stress also undoubtedly arises from other negative changes to working conditions or interactions with their employer during COVID.  More specifically they reported:
  • Half said their work tasks and work effort increased during the pandemic.
  • Wages and hours of work decreased, with greater losses suffered by non-union workers.
  • Five per cent reported being bullied by their supervisors.

Fear of job loss kept many workers from speaking out including one who said, “Employer made employees feel like they owed them for keeping them on payroll (even though the government subsidized 75 percent of our wages). Staff were asked to take on more work while working from home — all for the same pay.”

For many, the pandemic has highlighted existing and deepening inequalities. The study also found the following.
  • Women were more likely to report increases in work tasks, work effort and feeling unsafe at work.
  • Racialized workers were more likely to experience reduced wages, salary and hours of work.
  • Non-union workers were more likely to suffer decreased hours of work, wages and benefits.
  • Individuals receiving government support (Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program) before the pandemic were less likely to find employment during the pandemic, more likely to fall further into debt and suffer poorer health outcomes compared to those entitled to the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit.

In an article summarizing their findings, the researchers conclude, “COVID-19 is changing many aspects of our lives. Our study shows that in the short run, it’s changed workplace dynamics, mostly to the detriment of workers. The extent to which these changes become permanent will depend in part on the ability of workers to have a meaningful voice in their workplaces — and to influence what happens next.”
The project’s second phase will involve interviewing a number of the survey participants. To explore the study further, the researchers have developed a series of fact sheets which explain and summarize the findings.

WHSC—Always here to help.

The COVID-19 crisis presented an unprecedented challenge in terms of providing safe access to WHSC’s essential programs, including mandatory JHSC Certification training. This we achieved with WHSC virtual classroom training offering live, real-time learning. Participants and instructors engage remotely from their homes or workplaces, thus providing the benefits of traditional in-person training while also assuring safety.

Participants simply require a high-speed internet connection and a computer with a functioning camera and audio. Please note, to help ensure the integrity of the learning experience mobile devices like smart phones and tablets are not permitted. When registering be sure to supply the participant’s home address and phone number, as materials critical to successful participation will be shipped to this address.

Visit our online registration page for our complete virtual classroom training schedule and to register for any of our essential programs including including COVID-19GHS-WHMIS and other programs related to Mental Health at Work. Beyond scheduled classes we can work with you, where participant numbers warrant, to coordinate almost any of our training courses in a virtual classroom.

Need more information still?
Call a WHSC training services representative in your area.
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Additional related resources:
WHSC COVID-19 resources
COVID-19 rates higher among racialized and low wage workers