Independent contractors wonder why they've been declared essential

Some independent contractors in the Ottawa area are asking whether they need to be considered an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Last week, the Ontario government released a list of essential workplaces that were permitted to remain open beyond the province's deadline of 11:59 p.m. on March 24.

The list includes "construction work and services, including demolition services, in the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential sectors."  

Some contractors like David Sheard, however, think that definition is too broad.

"If somebody had a hole in the roof or a plumbing leak or backup, then yes, [workers] should be allowed to go in, because that's considered an emergency service," said Sheard, who's decided to close down his business during the pandemic. 

However, Sheard said he's seen people posting requests on social media for non-emergency work like kitchen or bathroom renovations — and also contractors willing to take them up.

"My opinion [is that] renovating a bathroom or renovating a kitchen at this time should not be considered essential," he said.

Families worry too

Megan feels the same.

Her husband is an electrician who is still going to work. CBC Ottawa has agreed to use only her first name in order to protect his job. 

"We're doing everything right. And it's almost like there's no point to that, if he's going to be out and about [and] then coming back home," she said.

"So I know he is kind of considering [whether he should] be isolating himself away from us."

While her husband's boss offered to lay him off, Megan said they worry about paying their bills since she's already receiving employment insurance due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

She also wonders if creditors will give them a break if he chooses to take time off. 

'It's pretty scary'

For those like plumber Kevin Villeneuve, who've been out handling emergency calls, the hope is that all contractors and potential clients are taking precautions.

"It's pretty scary. We're working and in some pretty bad scenarios," said Villeneuve, who owns Plumbing Express. 

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Villeneuve said most of his emergency calls are for blocked drains, which can be filled with bodily fluids.

He said his team is wearing gloves and disinfecting both equipment and their own hands before and after calls. They also now ask clients questions about their health and recent travel, and only accept digital payments.

And while he agrees with the decision to declare his industry essential, that doesn't make his work any less frightening. Some people are still asking for service even though they're in quarantine, Villeneuve said.

"We're really close to a lot of germs." 

Jiffy, a larger company that co-ordinates independent contractor calls, has kept working during the pandemic — as has the majority of its contractors.

"They obviously rely on this income," said co-founder Paul Arlin.

"And while some of them have chosen to just kind of shut down temporarily for the time being, the vast majority of them are taking the necessary precautions and helping homeowners."

Up to each business, says province 

In an email, the province's ministry of labour said while it takes the well-being of all Ontarians seriously, it must also maintain critical infrastructure.

"Business owners, including non-profits and service delivery organizations, should review the list of essential business which are authorized to stay open, determine whether they fit into any of the categories and, if they do, make a business decision as to whether to stay open." the statement said.

The ministry did not directly explain why all contractors were put on the essential list.