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Nearly 2 years into COVID-19 pandemic, front-line workers continue to face greater risks

At this point in the pandemic, B.C.-based WestJet flight attendant Crystal Hill says she no longer spends a lot of time worried about getting COVID-19 through her job that requires regular face-to-face interaction with the public

“You go to work and you understand that exposure is very likely,” she said. “Or could be very likely.

“But it has been here for two years,” said Hill. “At some point it’s almost like you have to numb yourself a little bit to it.”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, thousands of Canadian front-line workers who are unable to do their job from home continue to put themselves at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. And with the the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, those pressures, for many, have just intensified.

For flight attendants — on top of the fear of contracting COVID-19 from a passenger — there are struggles with federal mask mandates and passenger compliance.

“It’s just really been the last, I’d say, month that things have devolved to that feeling of where everyone’s exhausted,” said Hill, who is also vice president of CUPE 4070, the union that represents WestJet flight attendants.

Risk not recognized, says pharmacist

Toronto-based pharmacist Kyro Maseh, owner of Lawlor Pharmacy, says the stress of his job over the past couple years has him waking up multiple times a night because “there’s a million thoughts going through my head.”

Pharmacist Kyro Maseh prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at his pharmacy in Toronto on April 20, 2021. He’s frustrated that pharmacists weren’t prioritized for vaccination or recognized for front-line risks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

He has lost weight, as well. Not from dieting, but from skipping lunch. He said he simply doesn’t have the time to eat. 

But mostly he said he’s “livid” because he doesn’t feel the government has recognized that pharmacists are facing the same risks as other front-line healthcare workers.

“We’re the ones kind of triaging, recommending, answering questions and obviously filling prescriptions,” Maseh said. “So we are the most front-line health-care professional in the Canadian health-care system. And the most accessible by far.”

And for those experiencing any kind of COVID-19-related symptoms?  

“The first point of contact that you’ve had, guess where it was? It was me,” he said.

“And I wasn’t provided with [personal protective equipment], I wasn’t even considered a front-line health-care professional worthy of a vaccine when It was released. So you see the frustration.”

Facing people by the thousands

Waterloo-based part-time grocer Brent Lambert said he too feels that those providing services in grocery stores day-to-day are somewhat underappreciated compared to health-care workers who get the majority of the compassion.

We’re next in line. There aren’t any other industries that have faced people by the thousands,” he said. “We are. And … putting ourselves in harm’s way of a fatal virus.”

But it’s not just the threat of contracting COVID-19, he said, but virus-related absences that have added pressures to the job.

“We’re just short-staffed,” he said. 

‘”If you’re doing the work of three people, it’s burnout and that’s the biggest thing.”

‘I feel like I’m doing something’

Mississauga, Ont., Canadian Tire store employee Julian Mason said for him, there’s always a concern about getting the virus and bringing it home to his family.

He started a year ago and was happy to be employed, unlike many others who were losing their jobs. But he’s also a Type 1 diabetic, meaning he has a compromised immune system.

“So it’s a little scary for me to work while this is all happening,” he said.

Canadian Tire mechanic Nadim Farid, pictured on Jan. 6, says he feels good about providing an important service, especially to health-care workers who need to get around. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Nadim Farid, who has been a Canadian Tire automotive technician for seven years, said that “you never know if a customer has COVID when they come to the shop, that’s how it is. You’re taking the risk.”

Still he believes he’s providing a valuable service, in particular, for those health-care workers who need their vehicles in good working order so they can carry out their important tasks. 

“If someone needs to go to work, they come to us, get their car fixed,” he said. “They still have to go to the hospitals. If it snows, they need to get their tires on, their rigs checked, every thing like that. I feel like I’m doing something.”

Essential workers still on the job, like these shift workers at the Ford plant, in Oakville, Ont., pictured on Jan. 6, 2022. ((Evan Mitsui/CBC))

Meanwhile, at the Ford plant in Oakvllle, Ont., which has been idled at times during the pandemic, many of the workers coming into their afternoon shift had few concerns about contracting the coronavirus in their workspace.

“It’s been actually a breath of fresh air,” said Mike Legere, who’s been working at the plant for 40 years. “I get to go to work everyday. I’m not stuck in my house.”

“Everybody’s safe. We’re all wearing masks”

Line assembler Ledda Macera said she also has few worries about getting infected at the plant.

“It doesn’t mean that you have to get it at the work place,” she said. “You can get it anywhere.”

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