Outbreak at Canada Post
I work at Toronto’s largest postal facility. It’s packed with thousands of busy employees, making it next to impossible to avoid close contact. When my colleague got Covid-19, I was scared. When 280 others caught it, I was convinced I was next. A memoir from inside the Gateway plant
At first, I figured there must have been a bomb scare. I was running a little late for my regular 11 p.m. shift at the Canada Post Gateway facility in Mississauga, just a 10-minute drive south of Pearson airport. This was April 2020, and as I drove into the parking lot, I was alarmed to see a fire truck and police cars parked outside the main entrance. Several workers had gathered their things and were leaving the building in a rush. Gateway is the largest Canada Post facility in the country—450,000 pieces of mail are processed every eight hours—and we have experienced bomb threats before. There have been times when our X-ray machines detected something dangerous in a package and we had to evacuate the building. But in this case, it turned out a worker had tested positive for Covid-19 and someone called 911. This was early on in the pandemic and none of us knew how deadly it was or understood how to properly protect ourselves.
When I walked inside, workers were shouting questions—“Is it safe to stay or should we go home?” Management and union leaders assured everyone that precautions were being taken to make the facility safe, but not everyone was comforted. About 60 per cent of the people in my shift are over 50 and are at higher risk of getting severely infected. Some just decided to leave.
An entire section of the floor where the infected employee worked had been sealed off with tape. Half a dozen cleaners in haz-mat suits were spraying a lemony chemical on the machines, the tools and the plastic-wrapped bunches of mail and parcels. The spray made the place seem misty. I’d never seen cleaning look so frightening before.
The entire process lasted five or six hours, more than half of our shift. Around 5 a.m., our supervisors and union leaders told those of us who stayed that it was safe to work again. When my shift ended, at 7 a.m., I took extra care washing up. Still, when I got home, my daughters, who are 15 and 18, wouldn’t let me come inside. They handed me clean clothes and told me to change in the garage. When I went to the bathroom to wash my hands, I could hear my youngest timing me outside. Afterwards, they asked me to quit my job. I didn’t know what to say. They were scared. So was I, but I told them everything would be okay. How I wish that had been true.
I was a young newlywed when I left my home in India and moved to Toronto. My husband was born and raised here, and his parents lived with us. His mother worked as a clerk at Canada Post her entire adult life. Every evening, I’d ask her about her day. She was a quiet woman who shared stories sparingly, but one time, she told me how her manager berated her female co-workers for working too slowly. I asked her what she did about it and was surprised to learn she didn’t do anything. Growing up, I had seen men abuse their wives, and I always wanted to do something to stop it, to somehow be strong for women. I started reading online about Canada Post and learned about the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. I told my mother-in-law that when you have a union, you can speak up without fear of repercussion. She still didn’t do anything; she said she just wanted to collect her cheque and not cause trouble.
I had a partial college education from India and had taken a two-year IT course when I moved here. But after I had kids, I wanted a job that would allow me to be home with them during the day, so I applied to work at Canada Post. When I was hired, I got involved with the union right away. I wanted to help women like my mother-in-law know their rights.
I started as a casual postal clerk at the South Central facility in Toronto’s east end. My mother-in-law gave me advice on my first day: pay close attention to your work, go into the locker room to eat, then leave. Historically, there has been tension between managers and workers at Canada Post. That’s not exactly a shocking revelation. The union asks for things and the company automatically pushes back. At Canada Post, so many of our workers, like my mother-in-law, come from marginalized, low-income communities, and they’re terrified of losing their jobs. Because of that, they don’t speak up even if they’re treated unfairly—like when they’re pressured to do overtime, or to work without adequate equipment.
I wasn’t intimidated, though. A week into the job, I needed a safety knife to open parcels and packages, so I decided to ask my supervisor. My mother-in-law stopped me; she said to just get any spare knife from home like she did, or wait for management to give me one. She was worried that I’d lose my job if I asked for things. I did it anyway. And I asked my supervisor to make sure everyone else had the knife, too. He complied.
I had been at Canada Post for two years when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I took eight months off to take care of her. Sadly, she died in 2013. After her death, I transferred to the Gateway facility. It was closer to my house, just a 15-minute drive away. I got lost the first time I walked in. There are tens of thousands of pieces of mail moving everywhere on conveyor belts and hundreds of people coming and going non-stop: 4,500 employees work there, split across three shifts that run 24 hours a day. Inside, all you hear is the thud of packages falling, the slashing sound of parcels and boxes being knifed open for inspection, and the constant whirr of the X-ray machines, which are everywhere, stretching from floor to ceiling. These machines scan all the mail and sort it by type: there’s one section for letters, one for regular packages, one for oversize packages like fridges and televisions, one for international mail.
That’s where I work—in customs. I hand-sort mail that needs to be sent to faraway places by plane or truck. Some of it is designated as sensitive, like passports and government mail. The machine is the first stop for all mail, but our job is to double-check everything: make sure that nothing has been damaged, that the address is legible. We also make sure there are no bombs, drugs, explosives or anything dangerous being transported. There are 14 people per machine, with two people standing facing each other on either side of the conveyor belt so nothing is missed. Once all the packages and letters are processed, we help load them onto a trolley and send them with a driver.
At Gateway, time moves quickly. I’ve been working the night shift for 12 years, starting work at 11 p.m. and leaving at 7 a.m. I like that those hours allow me to spend more time with my family. My father-in-law, who is 87, also lives with us. He suffers from Alzheimer’s and requires constant care. I come home around 8 a.m. and take the kids to school—or, as is the case these days, get them set up for online school. I’ll sleep for a few hours after that. Then I’ll make lunch and dinner, tidy the house and run some errands. When my husband, who works for a tech company in Kitchener, gets home, I’ll sleep for a few more hours before I head off to work.
My routine at work has become second nature. I first go to the shared employee locker room and change into my safety shoes and vest. I swipe in with my employee card then head to the floor. Our health and safety standards dictate that we have to do something different every two hours to avoid repetitive motion injuries, so I talk to my supervisor to find out what I’ll be doing first: dispatch, sorting, loading or something else. Then I head to my designated machine and get started. At least, that’s how it went before the pandemic changed everything.
The day after that first case, management urged us to wear masks but left the choice to us. The province hadn’t made masks mandatory in indoor spaces and businesses yet. We’d been told to socially distance and wash our hands, but for details on the virus itself, we were left to our own devices. We watched CP24 constantly in the break rooms and at home, passing along what we learned. These conversations would sometimes get heated. People were cobbling together bits of information from WhatsApp, rumours and plant gossip, so naturally there was disagreement about the risks, safety measures and how the virus spreads.
The union created a Covid-19 committee made up of six members, who would be point persons to help the workers better understand the pandemic and how to stay safe. I’m a long-time shop steward, so I was asked to join, and I accepted. I was given a dedicated cell phone for the job. Taking on the role meant that in addition to my regular work, I would have to visit the Canada Post depots and plants that report cases, review the cleaning process, order extra cleaning wherever needed and ensure that all workers have appropriate PPE. I’d also be the first point of contact for any employees who have questions or concerns about Covid-19. That’s an important role, because workers feel comfortable talking to a colleague. Plus, supervisors generally listen to us because if they don’t, we can file a formal complaint with directors. We don’t get extra pay for this work; we do it because we care.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, everywhere I went, people were scared to come to work. Mail comes from countries all around the world, from China and America and the U.K. and India, which were coronavirus hot spots at the time. We were never sure if the mail we were dealing with on any given day had been licked or handled by someone with Covid-19. As cases started rising in Canada, every piece of mail felt deadly. The fear increased in lockstep with the number of cases.
Employees wanted to socially distance, but that was often hard to do. During each shift, some 500 people work in my section alone, passing mail along, helping to lift and move heavy packages from one place to another. You can’t do any of that while staying six feet apart. For those of us who were choosing to wear masks at the time, it was hard to breathe and lift heavy things, so it was taking longer to dispatch mail, which was creating a backlog. People stopped sharing their tools and equipment: knives, trolleys, tape, even stationery. There are only so many places in the facility where employees can rest. We used to gather in large groups in the lunchroom, but social distancing made that impossible. There were long lines for the microwaves because workers were required to sanitize the area after each use; the 30-minute lunch break could pass by just waiting in line to heat food.
It wasn’t until June that management started delivering PPE to everyone. In October, they finally made masks mandatory. Management set up a dedicated phone number for any worker who tested positive. The worker would call and leave a message informing their supervisor. The section where the infected employee worked was shut down for cleaning, then the supervisor would call the employee to collect contact tracing information. Special paid leave was created for the most vulnerable—because of age or pre-existing conditions—as well as others who needed to protect family members. That constituted about 10 per cent of employees. Canada Post hired casual workers to temporarily replace them, and they all needed training and time to get used to the tasks, which slowed things down even further.
According to public health guidelines, an outbreak is when two or more people in the same close space get infected at the same time. For months, that hadn’t happened, and cases remained low. That changed around Christmas. The holidays are our busiest time; everyone was working seven days a week instead of our regular five days. We were handling thousands more pieces of mail per shift, so we needed all the hands we could get.
Cases started to rise. There were at least two weeks where we had multiple cases every day at the plant, but because no two cases occurred in the same space or on the same team, there was technically no outbreak. I was starting to get anxious. We tried to persuade management to declare an outbreak so that there could be more strenuous and frequent cleaning across the building, and mandatory testing could begin. But the response was usually that they were adhering to public health recommendations. Plus, they said their contact tracing efforts showed workers were getting infected outside the building.
The rise in cases prompted more people to stay home. Anxiety increased. Workers kept calling me. We all knew the outbreak was coming—it was just a matter of when and how big. Finally, one afternoon in January, it happened. Six or seven people who worked in the parcel section tested positive. This time, management had to declare an outbreak. There was an eerie calm as everyone filed quietly out. The whole section was shut down for a day for extensive cleaning.
I thought about staying home, but I wondered if that would even make a difference. I still had to shop for groceries. A nurse comes to my house every day to check on my father-in-law. As a member of the committee, it was my duty to go wherever the cases were. As the cases rose, my phone kept ringing. Fielding those calls was so difficult, so emotional. People sometimes needed to talk for hours. They told me sad stories of having nowhere to go to isolate, of not knowing what to do, of being terrified for their family members. In all, some 280 workers tested positive. One of them, a healthy father of two in his 60s, got really sick four days after testing positive. He told his wife he’d go to the hospital the next day and went to lie down. He passed away in his sleep. Since then, three more Gateway workers have died.
The outbreak was all over the news—it was the worst-case scenario, and management was worried. The next time I entered the building, security asked me, for the first time, questions about my health and my family’s health and my ID number. There were now designated doors for entering and exiting. Many of the doors were automated now. So were the taps in all the bathrooms and the cafeteria. There were mountains of unopened boxes of mail and piles of packages at my station. To catch up, we took shorter breaks and worked more overtime. Some of the excess mail was sent to other depots to sort through.
Management gave us three-layered masks and instructed us to change them every two hours. The additional layer made breathing harder and slowed down our work even more. Everyone was ordered to get tested two weeks after the outbreak. Management set up an on-site clinic with a rapid test. It took 10 minutes. If a worker was negative, they could head back to the floor. If they were positive, they had to leave the building immediately. All workers going for a test had to bring their belongings so they could exit quickly.
After the outbreak, there were cleaners walking around the floor every day. Workers were told to get anything they touched cleaned when they switched tasks every two hours. We were all ordered to wear gloves, and we started wiping things down ourselves before and after touching them. The cleaners checked the cafeteria more often and wiped down tables and chairs and counters. You could hear them spraying and wiping constantly.
When news of the outbreak at Gateway spread across the country, we started receiving “Get well soon” cards from other Canada Post facilities. The one in Barrie sent us a huge poster with messages from their workers. I got calls from a friend in Vancouver and from a cousin in Ottawa who both work for Canada Post to make sure I was okay. The support was nice but their voices were tense: I could tell they were worried their facility was next.
That same anxiety was obvious in all my conversations. My committee phone rang almost non-stop for two weeks. Everyone had questions about how Gateway was responding and taking care to stop an outbreak from happening again. They all wanted someone from the committee to come and talk to their supervisors and check that they were following protocol. In February, I got a call from a worker at a west-end facility who said that management wasn’t following public health advice on social distancing or protective gear. I went there the next morning and found that it was true—the supervisors weren’t wearing masks or enforcing proper distancing. Workers were entering through the exit doors and vice versa. I went again the next day to make sure they had fixed everything, and they had.
This is my new routine. I spend the night doing my regular job. During the day, I’m darting around to facilities or checking up on colleagues by phone. It feels like I’m working two full-time jobs. It’s not easy and I’m tired and running on four hours of sleep. I drink coffee throughout the day. I have not taken any vacation since the pandemic started because I made a pledge as a Covid-19 committee member, and I can’t let my workers down. Sometimes, I can’t sleep from thinking about all the workers struggling with the virus or fearing for their lives.
Recently, a worker called me to say he had tested positive. He was in his 60s and his son dropped him at work every day. When the man got his results, his son panicked and told his dad he wouldn’t pick him up or bring him home. It took me 12 hours and dozens of phone calls to arrange a driver and a hotel room for him. I helped him fill out the form that we send to public health, which pays for the accommodation. He was crying non-stop that night. Thankfully, he’s okay now. I talked to him recently, and he’s back at work.
In January, a female colleague told me she’d tested positive. She lived with her elderly mom and didn’t want to go home and put her at risk. So I booked her into a hotel that was accepting positive patients, but she saw hair in the bathroom and roaches in the bedroom. She decided to stay in her car until we could find a new room. It was freezing at the time, and there was a snowstorm on the way. I begged her to go back to the hotel and promised to find her a different room the next day because it was already past midnight. She refused. It took us two days to find an alternative room for her that would accept a positive patient. I was speaking to her every hour. I didn’t sleep. I wish I could’ve brought her to my house, but I couldn’t put my family at risk.
Even though Canada Post has increased safety measures after the outbreak, nothing is foolproof. I’m worried another outbreak could happen any minute. I’ve been asking management for very basic things. I point out places that need cleaning. I suggest more masks and more cleaners on staff where necessary. Simple requests for basic supplies can take days.
I’m still worried. I don’t know what I’m taking home every day. Recently, management hung transparent curtains across the belts so there’s a divider between two workers sorting mail on the same machine. It’s a welcome safety measure, but of course it slows down the processing. There are more and more people on leave, so there are fewer people working per machine. That means delays in delivery. I know people are frustrated about that, but we’re all doing the best we can. Everyone is so tired.
My daughters are constantly checking on me. If I don’t sleep or I dry-cough, they get scared. The way they look at me now feels different. They don’t hug me as much. They installed a timer in the bathroom to make sure I’ve washed my hands thoroughly. Sometimes I can hear them counting outside.
I don’t remember the last time I had a full night’s sleep. Thankfully, there have only been two cases at Gateway since the outbreak, but there’s still unease in my building. Supervisors aren’t enforcing the rules as strictly anymore, so people think they’re safe now: they’re not ensuring proper social distancing or reducing crowding. As a committee member, I can’t be at every facility every day to make sure all the precautions are being taken. We all need to remember that cases can rise at any time; new deadly variants are spreading, the third wave is here. How can anyone relax?
Some days, I really feel hopeless, but then I remember why I took this job. I wanted to help workers like my mother-in-law fight for their rights. It’s not easy. But I know now how to talk to managers, how to hold meetings and how to push harder. I’ve learned a lot. Of course, I wish I knew all this earlier so I could have helped my colleagues when the pandemic started. I wish I could have been more prepared.
This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.