GTA distribution centers threatened by Omicron

Workers in factories and distribution centers in the Greater Toronto Area – an important cog in the Canadian economy – could be particularly threatened by the spread of the Omicron variant. Logistics experts believe, however, that companies are better prepared to face the new wave than in 2020. Consumers could avoid paying the price, but uncertainty still reigns.

The holiday season, when consumer purchases are skyrocketing, comes this year as a variant four to eight times more contagious than the Delta variant is currently spreading in Ontario. The context preoccupies the Dre Ananya Tina Banerjee, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto. “What is difficult is that these workers have precarious jobs and low wages. If they do not have social benefits or sick leave, we know that they will return to work even when they are sick. And that’s what worries me, ”she said.

40% of the nation’s store bought merchandise passes through the city of Brampton, where companies such as Canadian Tire and Amazon own major distribution centers. The municipality – which has a higher GDP than Saskatchewan and Manitoba – also has a CN rail yard. Almost $ 2 billion in goods pass through the Peel Region weekly, which includes the cities of Brampton and Mississauga.

In an interview with the CBC network on December 13, Dr Peter Jüni, scientific director of the Ontario Scientific Advisory Group on COVID-19, advised Ontarians to avoid large gatherings and busy places. But the chief medical officer of the province, Dr Kieran Moore, has not announced any new measures for factories or distribution centers.

Productivity before health

Logistics and Supply Chain Professor at George Brown College in Toronto Sam Lampropoulos says it is only a matter of time before the three-day doubling of cases across the province takes hold. its way through distribution centers.

“Popular items are in specific sections of the warehouse, so you get congestion in those places when pickers go to pick them up,” the professor explains. The goal of companies being to reduce the travel of employees, they work near popular products. “The incentive is productivity,” he says.

“I believe that with a good mask and vaccinated people who fill out a symptom questionnaire every day, you can probably continue certain activities and the transmission will be less,” believes Jimmy Dikeakos, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology of Western University.

Sam Lampropoulos explains, however, that companies like Amazon normally hire employees for a period of four to six weeks over the holidays to meet demand, “so these people may not know the safety rules,” he says. Some distribution companies have reportedly doubled their workforce in Brampton in the past year, says Usha Srinivasan, director of the Ryerson Venture Zone logistics incubator.

Preparation for two years

According to Usha Srinivasan, human resources departments have prepared “to the extreme” for this wave. “These companies are under a lot of pressure, since consumers expect to receive their products in a snap,” explains the director of the incubator.

Retail businesses have refueled to prevent shortages, explains Diane Brisebois, CEO of the Retail Council of Canada. “The supply chain has slowed down, but they [les entreprises] ordered more because they had anticipated a situation like this, ”she said. The CEO is concerned, but it would still be too early to determine the impact of the new variant on the industry. “Is Omicron a game-changer? No, ”thinks David Beaudet, logistics consultant at LIDD. But it exacerbates the problem of labor shortage, says the expert.

Despite public health measures, major outbreaks occurred in distribution centers in 2021. Between March 2020 and April 2021, more than 900 Amazon employees in the Greater Toronto Area contracted COVID-19, according to the Toronto Star. On April 24, the Region of Peel Public Health ordered the partial closure of two distribution centers of the American giant. Three days later, she was doing the same with the Canada Post sorting center in Mississauga, causing delivery delays.

“What happened to the Canada Post and Amazon centers is going to happen again”, thinks Sam Lampropoulos. If they want to prevent further outbreaks, companies will need to encourage vaccination, says Dre Ananya Tina Banerjee. But the situation in Ontario has changed since March 2020, recalls Jimmy Dikeakos. “We must remain optimistic. We’re going to ride a wave, but we know how to handle it, ”he said.

This story is supported by the Local Journalism Initiative, funded by the Government of Canada.

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