Ontario construction stakeholders and top-level government bureaucrats have committed to seeking a range of solutions to address the numerous prickly issues stemming from the COVID-19 crisis.
Delegations from five ministries plus the Premier’s Office would not promise to create a new government body to deal with essential workplace and other questions, but otherwise there was progress on multiple problems, said one organizer of a meeting attended by the stakeholders last week.
Senior representatives from the Ministries of Labour, Infrastructure, Housing and Municipal Affairs and Transportation along with the Attorney General’s and Premier’s offices conferred with executives from various contractor associations, trade unions and other bodies via video conference April 14 with an agenda that started with jobsite health and safety.
One of the organizers of the meeting, Construction and Design Alliance of Ontario (CDAO) chair Sandro Perruzza, said stakeholders called for the meeting after they realized they were asking for clarification on various issues from different ministries — roadbuilders talking to the Ministry of Transportation, homebuilders contacting Municipal Affairs and Housing, many of them calling Labour and Infrastructure — and getting conflicting messages.
“We realized they weren’t talking among themselves,” said Perruzza.
“Everyone was just bombarding these people with the same messages. So finally a bunch of us suggested that we have an organized meeting.”
Other topics on the agenda besides health and safety included federal support programs, the essential services list, building code and site inspections, contract language and liability and insurance issues.
“We decided health and safety would be the focus, and the Ministry of Labour would be the host,” said Perruzza. “And it was good because we had deputy ministers plus political staff plus representation from the Premier’s Office.”
Discussing results, Perruzza suggested there was progress in determining the appropriate processes to tackle different types of issues, such as insurance and contractual language. He reported that the government officials said they would take the idea of forming a clearinghouse-style agency to make authoritative decisions on essential-services problems back to the premier.
“They thought it was a good idea and they said they would take it back.
“We thought it was very productive and a great starting point,” he said of the meeting as a whole. “We were pleased with how receptive the government was to our suggestions, how collegial and collaborative it was.”
A number of stakeholder executives deferred to others including Perruzza when asked for an interview to discuss the meeting. A Ministry of Labour spokesperson when asked for comment wrote, “Minister (Monte) McNaughton continues to engage with labour leaders, businesses and workers in the construction sector.”
On health and safety, Perruzza said there was discussion on how well the jobsite protocols released by the province’s Chief Prevention Officer were working and there was discussion of the effectiveness of inspections.
On essential services, “there is still a lot of controversy,” Perruzza said. For example, ministries are telling contractors to obtain a legal opinion if they are not sure about the status of projects. “But it doesn’t work because if the contractor gets a legal opinion and the owner gets another legal opinion, then what?” he asked.
Language in contracts and insurance is similarly contentious, Perruzza said. There will be significant uncertainty, he explained, as new projects come on stream and the language in contracts will have to deal with that. As for insurance, it’s a “huge issue,” he said — even before the pandemic the cost of liability insurance had gone up 400 to 500 per cent.
“Can you imagine what is going to be coming out of this?” Perruzza asked.
It was decided there would be a separate working group set up to discuss insurance issues.
Meanwhile the CDAO will work on solutions for the force majeure problem.
“We have a knowledgeable voice so we will discuss how do we provide solutions to that,” Perruzza said. “Let’s work together and develop a solution provided by our legal teams and present it to government with a bow on it, saying, ‘here is what the industry agreed to.’ ”
A follow-up meeting is expected within weeks, Perruzza said.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.