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Will 2022 be the year of the strike? Many workers will walk out if inflation pay increases are not granted, experts say

May 27, 2022 6:00:00 AM

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Skyrocketing inflation is contributing to unrest across Canada’s unionized workforce, which could result in more strikes as 2022 progresses.

Inflation hit 6.8 per cent in April, with gas prices driven above $2 a litre and the cost of food on the rise.

Sheila Block, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the stakes are high in negotiations this year, as workers are seeing their wages eroded by inflation — but they also have more power than in years past thanks to a tight labour market.

“If you can walk away and find another job … you’re going to have more bargaining power than if you’re in a period of high unemployment,” said Block.

The first sign of inflation’s effect on labour negotiations was in the construction industry in Ontario. More than 30,000 workers in several trades walked off the job in May over wages. Industry representatives said they couldn’t remember the last time so many trades were on strike at the same time.

“We are seeing major strikes in places we haven’t seen in recent years,” said Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, thinks the recent strikes in Ontario’s construction industry are a sign of what’s to come.

“I think this is a wake-up call,” he said.

Thousands of workers in Ontario are up for bargaining in 2022 in the private and public sectors, including teachers, federal public service workers, media workers, warehouse workers, and of course construction workers.

At Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union (of which the Toronto Star is a member), hundreds of collective agreements have expired or are set to expire in 2022, said secretary-treasurer Lana Payne.

Last year, the union saw more strikes across its membership than ever before, offering a good indication of what’s to come, said Payne.

So far in 2022, several Unifor bargaining units have already had success. In the forestry sector, workers got between 20 and 24 per cent in wage gains across a four-year contract, while a strike by warehouse workers resulted in an eight-per-cent gain in the first year, and an average wage increase of 15.8 per cent over the 4.5-year agreement.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents 700,000 public-sector members across Canada, is in for a big year: around half of the union’s units have agreements that are either already expired or will be in bargaining in 2022, according to a spokesperson.

CUPE senior economist Angella MacEwen said strikes are a difficult decision that only happen in a fraction of bargaining situations. Just a successful strike vote can be enough to get a better deal, she said.

Teachers in Ontario are up for bargaining too, with their agreements expiring at the end of August.

A week ago, The Public Service Alliance of Canada declared an impasse with the federal government. The union, which represents more than 120,000 federal public service workers, said Ottawa offered wage increases averaging 1.75 per cent a year over a four-year collective agreement.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said negotiations for teachers and other public workers are muddied by Bill 124, which capped salary increases to one per cent per year for a million workers across the province for three years.

Nurses, too, are constrained by Bill 124, and by the fact that they can’t strike, said Ontario Nurses Association president Cathryn Hoy. In other words, nurses don’t have the bargaining power many other workers are gaining, she said, even though like other sectors, nursing is having a lot of difficulty attracting and retaining workers.

Around a third of unionized workers in Canada are in the private sector, for example construction, and the rest are in the public sector. While union coverage across industries is more than 30 per cent, in the public sector it’s more than 77 per cent.

Aaron Wudrick, director of the domestic policy program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said inflation provides a compelling argument for unions at the bargaining table, since they’re essentially asking for their workers to not take a pay cut.

But employers are facing inflation too, and the government also has its COVID-19 debt to deal with, said Wudrick.

Wilfrid Laurier University economics professor David Johnson said bargaining with a public employer is different than with a private employer. With the latter, unions have to take into account how rising costs will affect the business — and strikes are a strong tool in some industries where a holdup can really impact the company’s bottom line.

But in the public sector, the employer often has powers that limit the union’s bargaining power, said Johnson. And strikes are a struggle for public support instead of an economic blow.

Johnson said there’s a lot of evidence that the current inflation rate won’t be “sticky,” meaning some of the increases will ease. While he thinks inflation is going to be a key talking point in labour negotiations in the months to come, the question of that “stickiness” will also come up.

Wudrick believes inflation will persist for a year or two, and thinks collective agreements will reflect that: employers may “front-end load” contracts with a higher wage bump in the first year followed by more modest increases.

Union representatives and labour experts predict a resurgence in interest for cost of living adjustment, or COLA, clauses at bargaining tables in the coming year. That means in addition to an agreed-upon base wage increase, wages will also have periodic adjustments tied to the Consumer Price Index, a clause that was common during earlier periods of higher inflation.

Block said there will also be pressure to negotiate shorter contracts because of the uncertainty, and Stanford predicts there may be some “wage reopener” clauses allowing for pay to be renegotiated during the contract term.

Payne said Unifor is seeing more COLA clauses being tabled in bargaining, and expects that will continue across the unionized workforce.

“Workers feel that they have power now,” Payne said.

With files from The Canadian Press

Rosa Saba is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rosajsaba

‘I put my neck on the line’: Toronto doctor vaccinated hundreds of kids under 5 “off label”

May 27, 2022 5:00:00 AM

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A Toronto physician has vaccinated hundreds of children under five — some as young as six months old — against COVID-19, despite the vaccine not being authorized by Health Canada for this age group.

The Star has learned public health officials stepped in after they discovered Dr. Christopher Sun, a family doctor in Weston-Mount Dennis, was giving COVID vaccines to ineligible children.

In a conversation with the Star, Sun said he gave the COVID vaccine to about 500 kids between the ages of six months and five years during a three-month span, a decision he said he made “to protect children.”

Sun, who believes he was “one of the only people in Ontario” vaccinating children under five, said he felt compelled to give the COVID vaccine “off label” to this age group after some parents started to ask for the shot in late December. They told him they wanted to protect their families during the Omicron wave.

“I put my neck on the line and did what I wanted to get done, which was to protect children,” he said in an interview. Health Canada has not approved any COVID vaccines for children under five.

The parents who came to him “understood the benefits and risks,” Sun said, and he felt he “ethically had no reason to say no.” One shot quickly turned to more as word got around.

“These are worried parents in time of a health crisis and I think it’s wrong to turn away people who know what they are getting into,” he added.

In March, Toronto Public Health told him to stop vaccinating kids under five and reported him to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, said Sun, adding he still vaccinated this age group until the end of that month.

He said the CPSO interviewed him about his actions but dismissed the concern. Sun said he has since stopped giving any COVID vaccines off-label — for a purpose or patient group that it’s not approved for.

CPSO spokesperson Shae Greenfield said in an email that the college can’t comment on this specific matter, but considers the “unique facts” in each case “to determine how best to ensure that the public is protected.”

On average only about one per cent of concerns result in a referral to the tribunal, out of more than 3,600 last year, and the college is not aware of others about vaccines for under-fives, Greenfield said.

“Among the factors that would be considered are the nature of the concern, the physician’s willingness to correct that behaviour, and whether there is reason to believe that further intervention is necessary to ensure that patients are not subjected to unnecessary risk,” Greenfield added

Asked multiple times to confirm details on this case, and about the scope of COVID vaccines given to kids under five in the city, a spokesperson for Toronto Public Health responded in an email that it follows Ontario Ministry of Health guidelines.

“At this time, no COVID-19 vaccine is approved in Canada for children under the age of five years old. The Ontario Ministry of Health guidance does not permit vaccination of children under age five with any publicly funded COVID-19 vaccine,” said Lenore Bromley in an email.

Ministry of Health spokespeople would not comment on how many kids under five have been vaccinated in the province, or how many physicians have administered vaccines to this age group.

“A report was run in March 2022 that showed some incidents of children under the age of five being vaccinated,” said W.D. Lighthall in an email.

“The information was provided to Public Health Units to review their local vaccine practices and ensure alignment with provincial guidance.”

“COVID-19 vaccinations for children under five are still pending safety and efficacy trials and do not yet have Health Canada approval,” his colleague Bill Campbell said.

Older children aged five to 11 became eligible for COVID shots six months ago; Health Canada approved Pfizer’s vaccine for that age group on Nov. 19.

It's not clear how many other doctors were offering the vaccine to kids under five. But at Toronto Western Hospital’s family health team, some four-year-old children who would soon turn five got the shot.

This happened over a period of about four days “when the MoH had opened the dates in the system which allowed for the vaccination of children within their 5th year,” confirmed University Health Network spokesperson Gillian Howard in an email.

“When that changed — as I recall after the first weekend — (the) Family Health Team changed their approach. All of the other UHN clinics were for adults.”

Early signals from health agencies had suggested a spring approval for COVID vaccines for kids under five. But now experts suggest vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna won’t be authorized until at least June, triggering a summer rollout at the earliest.

Families watching Omicron variants sweep through daycares, schools and communities, and public health restrictions drop, have had to rely on masks, distancing and a little bit of hope that their unvaccinated kids might escape infection.

Dr. Samantha Green was one parent who decided her kids couldn’t wait.

The Toronto family doctor had heard about a doctor in Weston—Mount Dennis who was giving COVID vaccines off label. At the end of January, she got Sun to vaccinate her two young children against COVID, despite them being ineligible

Her preschooler son, Jack, and toddler daughter, Florence, were both in daycare, and after reviewing Pfizer’s initial drug trial data, Green decided the benefits of the shots outweighed any risks.

“With Omicron rising, I grew more and more nervous,” said Green, a family physician at Unity Health Toronto. “I started to really worry for their health and wellbeing.”

She chose to give Jack — at the time, he was three-and-a-half — the 10-microgram dose meant for children five and older. For Florence, who was 18 months, Green decided to go with the three-microgram dose studied in the company’s trial for kids six months to five years.

“We felt it was the best choice for us. I absolutely don’t have any regrets at all.”

Green said it is not uncommon for physicians to prescribe vaccines and medications off label, especially for kids, and that she was comfortable with the safety and efficacy data she reviewed. She added her family, which also takes other precautions, has not gotten COVID.

Sun said most of the parents who came to him in the three-month span he gave COVID vaccines had reviewed the Pfizer drug trial data like Green. Many of the parents who contacted him were physicians, he said.

While parents from the U.S. and from other provinces contacted him about getting their young children vaccinated, Sun said he did not vaccinate those kids.

“This wasn’t like someone asking for Ivermectin and not knowing what COVID was or how vaccines work,” he said. “These are people who actually read the studies and knew what they were asking for.

“My understanding is that doctors are allowed to prescribe things off label, which we do all the time.”

Sun said he explained to parents the vaccine was not approved by Health Canada, outlined the Pfizer data that was available at that time and asked for verbal informed consent.

He said he told parents there are still unknowns about the vaccine in the youngest kids. He also said he pointed to Pfizer trial data that he said showed the vaccine initiated “quite a good immune response in kids who were six months to two years old in terms of antibody levels.”

Pfizer tested a two-dose, three-microgram vaccine for kids six months to five years this past winter, with results that fell short of what regulators wanted to see in terms of efficacy.

The company released results on a three-microgram, three-dose vaccine just this week in a press release, which said the vaccine was about 80 per cent effective in a trial of about 1,600 kids under five.

“I told them this is a decision they are making on their own accord,” said Sun. “They are doing it based on the information available at the moment.”

This is not the first time that a COVID vaccine has been used in an unapproved group. The rollout has been marked by changing guidance, from pausing AstraZeneca in Ontario to mixing and matching vaccine brands, as scientists race to keep up with a new and ever-changing virus in a public health emergency.

In late 2020 and early 2021, the shots were not recommended for pregnant individuals (they are now), because they were not included in the original clinical trials. But some pregnant health-care workers opted to get the shot at the time because they felt the benefits outweighed the risk. Last summer, before vaccines were approved for kids five to 11, some children turning 12 in 2021 with late birthdays were offered shots from the Middlesex-London health unit. That was quickly shut down by the Ministry of Health, but a week later vaccines were opened up provincewide to that group.

So far, out of the two candidates for vaccines for the youngest kids, Moderna’s version is closer to being approved in Canada.

The company submitted to Health Canada for approval of a 25-microgram, two-dose vaccine series, in April. It “cannot speculate on the timing of Health Canada’s review,” said Alanna Fox in an email.

Pfizer Spokesperson Christina Antoniou said in an email that the company is in “ongoing discussions with Health Canada about the vaccine in this population but cannot comment on filing timelines in Canada.”

A Health Canada spokesperson could not provide more information on the timeline for the Moderna review, but confirmed Wednesday that Pfizer had not yet submitted its under-five COVID vaccine for approval.

Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie

May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11

Today’s coronavirus news: International flight delays at Pearson airport jump by factor of 275

May 27, 2022 6:27:00 AM

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The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

2 p.m. The number of international flights delayed on arrival at Toronto Pearson International Airport jumped by 275 times last month compared with April 2019.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority says it held 2,204 planes from abroad on the tarmac last April versus just eight in the same period before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staffing shortages at security and customs checkpoints along with public-health protocols have seen airport wait times soar as travellers flood the skies after two years of pent-up demand.

In the past month, tarmac delays have frequently led to staggered offloading of passengers from a given plane on arrival to ease the burden on overflowing terminals. Meanwhile departing passengers can find themselves waiting hours to get to their gate, with scenes of long security queues and stories of missed flights on social media.

1:35 p.m. Travelers to Cyprus will no longer be required to show either a valid COVID-19 vaccination or a recovery certificate and won’t need to produce a negative recent COVID-19 test of June 1, the Cypriot government said Friday.

The government also decided to abolish a requirement to wear face masks in all indoor areas in Cyprus as of June 1 with the exception of hospitals, nursing homes and other indoor medical facilities.

Transport Minister Yiannis Karousos said the decision to lift COVID-19 screening requirements at airports signals the tourism-reliant island nation is ready to return to normality.

1 p.m. Ontario is reporting 154 people in ICU due to COVID-19 and 948 in hospital overall testing positive for COVID-19, according to its latest report released Friday morning.

Of the people hospitalized, 41 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 59 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive. For the ICU numbers, 60.8 per cent were admitted for COVID-19 and 39.2 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive.

The numbers represent no increase in the ICU COVID-19 count and a 5.7 per cent decrease in hospitalizations overall. 26 per cent of the province’s 2,343 adult ICU beds remain available for new patients.

Given new provincial regulations around testing that took effect Dec. 31, 2021, case counts – reported at 1,096 on Friday, down 10 per cent from the previous day – are also not considered an accurate assessment of how widespread COVID-19 is right now. 14 new deaths were reported in the latest numbers.

Read the full story from the Star’s Ande Fraske-Bornyk

11:30 a.m. The coronavirus mutant that is now dominant in the United States is a member of the Omicron family but scientists say it spreads faster than its Omicron predecessors, is adept at escaping immunity and might possibly cause more serious disease.

Why? Because it combines properties of both Omicron and Delta, the nation's dominant variant in the middle of last year.

A genetic trait that harkens back to the pandemic's past, known as a “Delta mutation," appears to allow the virus "to escape pre-existing immunity from vaccination and prior infection, especially if you were infected in the omicron wave," said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas. That's because the original Omicron strain that swept the world didn’t have the mutation.

The Omicron “subvariant” gaining ground in the U.S. — known as BA.2.12.1 and responsible for 58 per cent of U.S. COVID-19 cases last week — isn't the only one affected by the Delta mutation. The genetic change is also present in the Omicron relatives that together dominate in South Africa, known as BA.4 and BA.5. Those have exactly the same mutation as Delta, while BA.2.12.1 has one that's nearly identical.

10:50 a.m. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to simplify the COVID-19 hospital data it collects as the demands of the pandemic evolve and some assembled information has become outdated or redundant.

The agency is likely to stop collecting data from hospitals on suspected COVID-19 cases that haven’t been confirmed by tests, for example, and may also wind down federal reporting from rehabilitation and mental health facilities that aren’t major intake points for virus cases, according to a draft of the plan that was viewed by Bloomberg News.

Early in the pandemic, when COVID-19 tests were sparse and it could take days to confirm cases, the U.S. encouraged hospitals to report all likely infections. But since most hospitals now test all patients on admission, suspect cases can be confirmed or ruled out within hours, making the data not particularly useful.

9:30 a.m. Airlines and tourist destinations are expecting monster crowds this summer as travel restrictions ease and pandemic fatigue overcomes lingering fear of contracting COVID-19 during travel.

Many forecasters believe the number of travelers will match or even exceed levels in the good-old, pre-pandemic days. However, airlines have thousands fewer employees than they did in 2019, and that has at times contributed to widespread flight cancellations.

People who are only now booking travel for the summer are experiencing the sticker shock.

“The time to have gotten cheap summer flights was probably three or four months ago,“ says Scott Keyes, who runs the Scott’s Cheap Flights site.

Internationally, fares are also up from 2019, but only 10 per cent. Prices to Europe are about 5 per cent cheaper than before the pandemic — $868 (U.S.) for the average round trip, according to Hopper. Keyes said Europe is the best travel bargain out there.

8:32 a.m. Nursing home chains with some of the highest COVID-19 death rates are set to reap big financial rewards under the Ford government’s $6.4-billion expansion of the province’s long-term-care system.

According to records obtained by the Star, more than half of the approximately 60,000 new and redeveloped beds in the government’s plan are set to go to private, for-profit companies — many of which had far higher death rates than non-profit and city-run chains.

Non-profit nursing homes are set to receive just over 30 per cent of the total beds. Municipal chains, which reported by far the lowest death rates during the pandemic, will receive just six per cent.

Read the full story from the Star’s Marco Chown Oved, Kenyon Wallace and Ed Tubb

7:30 a.m. Flight cancellations and short-staffing are already marring the start of the busy summer travel season, as Delta Air Lines warned of disruptions to flights over Memorial Day weekend and announced cuts to its flight schedule due to operational challenges.

Facing weather disruptions, short-staffing and an increase in COVID-19 cases among its employees, Atlanta-based Delta is cutting flights over the Memorial Day holiday period and through the summer.

That promises to cause frustrations for the millions of travelers expected to take to the skies for vacations this weekend and through the summer, amid a rebound in travel that has driven record demand in some areas. Delta alone expects to handle 2.5 million passengers over the Memorial Day weekend, up 25% from 2021.

7:20 a.m. A Toronto physician has vaccinated hundreds of children under five — some as young as six months old — against COVID-19, despite the vaccine not being authorized by Health Canada for this age group.

The Star has learned public health officials stepped in after they discovered Dr. Christopher Sun, a family doctor in Weston-Mount Dennis, was giving COVID vaccines to ineligible children.

In a conversation with the Star, Sun said he gave the COVID vaccine to about 500 kids between the ages of six months and five years during a three-month span, a decision he said he made “to protect children.”

Sun, who believes he was “one of the only people in Ontario” vaccinating children under five, said he felt compelled to give the COVID vaccine “off label” to this age group after some parents started to ask for the shot in late December. They told him they wanted to protect their families during the Omicron wave.

Read the full story from the Star’s Megan Ogilvie and May Warren

Friday 6:19 a.m.: According to North Korea, its fight against COVID-19 has been impressive: About 3.3 million people have been reported sick with fevers, but only 69 have died.

If all are coronavirus cases, that’s a fatality rate of 0.002%, something no other country, including the world’s richest, has achieved against a disease that has killed more than 6 million people.

The North’s claims, however, are being met with widespread doubt about two weeks after it acknowledged its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak. Experts say the impoverished North should have suffered far greater deaths than reported because there are very few vaccines, a sizable number of undernourished people and a lack of critical care facilities and test kits to detect virus cases in large numbers.

North Korea’s secretiveness makes it unlikely outsiders can confirm the true scale of the outbreak. Some observers say North Korea is underreporting fatalities to protect leader Kim Jong Un at all costs. There’s also a possibility it might have exaggerated the outbreak in a bid to bolster control of its 26 million people.

Thursday 4 p.m. As of June 1, Newfoundland and Labrador will no longer require that certain public and private sector employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. The government said today in a news release the decision is based on the low number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the province.

The province has required proof of two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine for workers in the public sector, as well as employees of certain businesses including bars, restaurants and facilities catering to vulnerable populations.

The rules came into effect on Dec. 17.

Health officials say they will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in the province and the rules could be reinstated if deemed necessary.

Read Thursday’s coronavirus news.

CP24 News

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