Toronto Sets January Date for City Workers to Return to Office Amid Rising COVID-19 Cases, Omicron Uncertainty

The city of Toronto hopes to set an example for other employers by ordering thousands of employees who work remotely during the pandemic to return to city workplaces, at least part-time, beginning Jan.4.

Mayor John Tory told reporters Tuesday that he is concerned about the economic impacts of empty office towers and other workplaces in downtown Toronto and believes staff can safely return to work for at least three days a week.

All city buildings, such as the city hall and suburban civic centers, will reopen, including kiosks for members of the public and face-to-face meetings with accommodations for remote public participation.

The announcement came as new COVID-19 infections in the city continue to rise after a prolonged dip, and amid uncertainty over the Omicron variant of the virus, which health experts warn could be more infectious than the strain. Delta now dominant.

Global health experts are racing for data on that question, as well as on the protection offered by current COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s chief of public health, backed the plan and also urged Torontons to continue anti-virus safeguards, including keeping in-person social circles small.

Tory and city manager Chris Murray said at the news conference that they needed to notify workers well in advance (about a quarter of the city’s roughly 32,000 active employees switched to remote work) of a mandatory return. to workplaces, but that the plan will be adjusted if Health officials warn of any emerging safety hazards.

Tory defended the decision to move before everything was known about Omicron.

“We had to have a plan and a plan requires a date” for city services and workplaces to return to normal pre-pandemic operations, Tory said.

“We will continue to implement the plan carefully and responsibly, but we will be watching every day … At no point would we do anything that is contrary to the best interests of the health of our own employees, but here we have a dividend that is paid by the fact that we have almost 100 percent of them vaccinated ”.

Murray said work is underway to ensure protection against viruses in city workplaces, including distancing and the availability of disinfectants.

Tory said she is working with the Toronto Region Board of Trade and large employers in efforts to get employees safely back to their workplaces. The mayor has repeatedly raised the alarm about the economic health of downtown and Toronto in general, if people do not start flocking to the core again.

Dave Mitchell, president of CUPE Local 79 which represents more than 20,000 of the city’s in-house workers, said in a statement that the Jan. 4 date “for the city’s new hybrid work program seems ambitious given the increase of COVID cases in Ontario.

“We hope that the city will respond to any changes in public health directives.”

The union is pleased that the city is developing a long-term plan to give workers more flexibility, but has not seen any details about the “hybrid model” and expects it to consider both equity and seniority of staff, he added.

De Villa said “it’s a question of when, not if” the Omicron variant found in travelers returning to Ottawa is detected in Toronto residents.

But “we have many strengths in our favor,” including the city’s high vaccination rate and dedicated residents following public health measures.

“That doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. On the contrary, we must continue to be vigilant in all these aspects … practicing those public health measures: masking, physical distancing, limiting their interactions to those who are vaccinated and keeping their social circle small whenever possible, ”said de Villa .

The city’s return-to-work plan is sensible, he said, given that public health officials and city leaders “are in constant communication, we are monitoring the situation regularly” and will not hesitate to recommend changes if necessary.

Similar to the way it is taking the lead in ordering employees to return to workplaces, the city was one of the first large employers to announce that those employees had to show they had received at least two vaccines against COVID-19 or face an unpaid suspension and then a layoff. .

The city announced Friday that it would push the completion date back to the week of January 2, from December 13, given new health recommendations on the duration between the first and second injections.

The TTC also extended the deadline for its employees, from December 30 to January 27.

David Rider is the head of Star’s City Council office and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider


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