OTTAWA — A Winnipeg mail carrier is worried about infecting his vulnerable family members with COVID-19 due to a federal government policy that forces Canada Post staff to wear lower-quality masks at work.
"I thought it was some kind of a joke at first," Corey Gallagher told the Free Press.
"I’m just a little frustrated at how behind the company is."
Gallagher was sent home Tuesday after his Canada Post bosses refused to let him wear a respirator similar to an N95 mask while he was on the job.
Masks with a particle-filtration efficiency of 95 per cent, such as the gold-standard N95 or similar KN95 or KF94 masks manufactured in Asia are considered superior for preventing COVID-19 transmission when worn properly to create a seal.
The masks are called respirators because they prevent wearers from inhaling airborne particles, unlike blue surgical masks that only block the wearer from expelling droplets.
With a pregnant, immunocompromised wife and a child too young to get vaccinated, Gallagher wanted to do whatever he could to keep the virus out of his home, so he bought 95-grade masks from a medical supplier.
He wore one to work at the 400 McDermot Ave. mail depot Monday after a holiday break filled with news reports and warnings about the extremely contagious Omicron variant.
Gallagher’s supervisors were unimpressed.
"It was the first thing in the morning, and the supervisor’s like, ‘You can’t wear that; you have to change,’" he said.
“It was the first thing in the morning, and the supervisor’s like, ‘You can’t wear that; you have to change." – Corey Gallagher
"It was awkward, because I go in and sort my mail for a couple of hours, and it’s non-stop, like, five different supervisors coming up saying, ‘You can’t wear that mask,’ or ‘Do you need a mask?’"
The superiors said staff had to wear either the provided white cloth masks, which don’t have any sort of logo imprinted on them, or a disposable surgical mask.
They said he could wear the higher-quality mask only while working outdoors. A few hours later, they said he could wear the cloth mask on top of the high-grade respirator.
Not only would that be uncomfortable, it could change the shape of the respirator, making it difficult to get a proper seal.
Others in the workplace have had the same concern, and asked the local health and safety committee and the union to get clarity on the Crown corporation’s policies.
Gallagher, who has worked at Canada Post for nearly 15 years, made it through his Monday shift, but was sent home Tuesday a few minutes after starting work, the head supervisor ordering him to use a personal day.
It turns out Ottawa won’t let Canada Post staff wear anything but the lower-quality masks recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"PHAC recommends the use of non-medical masks made of at least two layers of woven fabric with a third middle layer of filter-type fabric, for adequate protection," Canada Post spokeswoman Valérie Chartrand said in a statement.
"The company also follows the directive received from Employment and Social Development Canada, which requires employees to wear face coverings supplied by Canada Post to ensure they meet the PHAC requirements."
Chartrand confirmed that means staff can use only a reusable cloth face covering or a disposable surgical mask.
"Canada Post will continue to monitor best practices and recommendations with respect to face coverings, and update our requirements accordingly," she wrote.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers said an update can’t come soon enough.
"CUPW is aware and concerned that Canada Post Corporation is refusing to allow some workers to wear N95 masks at work," wrote national president Jan Simpson.
She said she’d prefer the Crown corporation provide high-quality respirators or, alternatively, allow employees to supply their own.
“CUPW is aware and concerned that Canada Post Corporation is refusing to allow some workers to wear N95 masks at work." – Jan Simpson.
"Research on the new Omicron variant has established it is more transmissible through shared air than earlier variants. N95s offer more effective protection because they filter out more particles in the air than medical or cloth masks," she wrote.
"As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, Canada Post Corporation should be doing everything in its power to protect postal workers, who continue to help people stay home and stay safe."
The two federal ministers who handle labour issues referred afternoon queries late Tuesday to Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi.
In the fall, after sustained pressure from infectious-disease doctors, Canada became one of the last developed countries to recognize the coronavirus as airborne, meaning the pathogen spreads in shared spaces with poor ventilation.
Gallagher fears Ottawa’s message isn’t getting through to the workplaces it regulates, where the Omicron variant is causing a jump in absenteeism as people have to isolate.
"We’re on a work shortage; we’re doing Saturday and weekend deliveries because there’s no workers because of that. And they still don’t seem to get the message," he said.
"The only reason why they wouldn’t send me home (Monday) is because we’re so short-staffed."
“The only reason why they wouldn’t send me home (Monday) is because we’re so short–staffed.” – Corey Gallagher
At the chaotic start of the pandemic, Gallagher recalls Canada Post supplying staff with makeshift respirator-type masks that seemed to come from a hardware store.
Manitoba health officials recently said everyone will likely be exposed to the Omicron variant. The province has been distributing KN95 masks at liquor marts and casinos so members of the public can better protect themselves.
"Apparently everybody’s going to get this thing, so I’m trying my best not to," Gallagher said. "All to be told that I can’t now."
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In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"