Contractors seek clarity about inconsistent essential service provisions in COVID-19 shut-down regulations

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

Ontario’s general contractors are making pleas to Premier Doug Ford and the provincial government to clarify essential service designations, saying they are receiving conflicting and inconsistent answers from the government hotline and local officials.

One contractor, Peter Vicano, president of Brantford-based Vicano Construction, sent an email to Ford on Monday saying:

“I too have spoken to the government hotline.

“They could not tell much of anything and directed me to MOL (Ministry of Labour)

“MOL directed me to the City Police.

“The City Police directed me to the local Health Unit.

“The Local Heath Unit directed me to Property Standards department in (the) Building Department.

“The Chief Building Official said he has to talk to the city solicitor.

“I don’t want to be fined!

“I don’t want to go to jail!

“I want to do the right thing!

“Please Mr. Premier, we need clarity.

“If you create a hotline….please equip it with knowledgeable people and that can make decisions.”

Vicano attached another email from Alex Snyder, project manager with Snyder Construction in Ashburn.

“Mr. Premier:

“The last thing I want to do right now, is write a letter to you. I am sure you are inundated with information, decisions to be made, and appeals from all the lives that have been affected by your government. The media said Justin Trudeau channelled his inner Churchill. I’d like to recall a quote as a Churchill fan myself, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.’.

I want to focus on the construction industry, and your decisions regarding it. Right now, there is vast confusion in our industry. Your recent update regarding the list of essential workplaces does not make sense, and when we called the Spread Business Information Line, the operator did not know the difference between commercial, institutional, industrial construction. Let me divide my concerns into three points for clarity:

  • The government has allowed the continued construction of large condominiums that hundreds of workers are onsite for, but disallowed ICI which often only has less than 10 workers onsite for projects under a million. In terms of the information regarding the spread of COVID-19, it would make sense that less people congregating at a workplace would be better.
  • Supply chains in construction are facing massive strain with the way things are, and with this new update, might be broken for far longer. It is critical to keep supply chains going at least at bare minimum, instead of shutting down completely. Industry experts would agree with me.
  • Currently, with large buildings empty such as schools, government buildings; it is possible to maintain social distancing onsite and get projects done, so facilities are ready for when the Emergency Act ceases. Our employees understand this, have taken proper safety guidelines to heart, and want to keep working. Again, it makes very little sense for the government to allow large condominium projects to continue, but disallow smaller ICI projects with less people onsite.

“The construction industry has instituted many safety guidelines including the COR certification, spent millions on safety over the years, and we have the capability to quickly shift how we work through this training to adapt to protect our workforce. I am not only writing this on behalf as a representative of Snyder Construction, but on behalf of all our workers who agree with its contents.

“I realize I am criticizing your government and your decisions Mr. Premier, but let me quote Churchill again. ‘You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.’

Wisdom is found in those who take advice, and I wish you the best of advice during this time,” Snyder wrote.

Contradictory interpretations have resulted in strange business decisions. A residential lawn sprinkler installation business in Ottawa says it is an “essential business,” because it performs essential maintenance work, while OGCA president Clive Thurston says several school districts have issued stop work directives under the emergency guidelines – even though the work could be much more easily conducted within COVID-19 guidelines, than residential high rise condominiums in Toronto, for which work is continuing. (This includes school renovation work, since the schools are unoccupied during crisis.)

Meanwhile, the Surety Association of Canada (SAC) has joined the OGCA in asking the provincial government for a fix to emergency court limitations regulations that have had the unintended consequence of blocking millions of dollars in construction lien holdback payments.

“We urge the government of Ontario to amend the order and to provide an exemption for the Construction Act of Ontario,” SAC president Steve Ness said on Monday. (Lawyer Glenn Grenier has drafted text for the amended regulations; but OGCA president Clive Thurston says the matter is tied up in the Ministry of the Attorney General apparently because the government is seeking labour’s concurrence on the changes.)

“The order was issued with the best of intentions with the objective of protecting the pubic from the expiry of legal rights in circumstances where the COVID-19 pandemic prevents parties from taking the steps necessary to preserve those rights,” the SAC says in a statement.

“The impact of not receiving holdback funds can be devastating to contractors, most of whom are small businesses,” SAC says. “Holdback funds represent the vast majority, if not the entirety, of many company’s available operating capital. Losing access to these monies will result in many companies becoming illiquid very quickly. With fewer projects expected to come onto the market and with current broader economy stresses, this pool of readily available cash is critical to the ongoing viability of the affected construction businesses.”

Ness says there is a theoretical solution to the problem with Holdback Repayment Bonds, but this solution would be a short-signed approach that would come with its own set of problems. “We’ll do whatever we can to help our contractor clients and holdback bonds will provide relief in some circumstances,” Ness says. “But they may not be available or applicable on all projects and to all parties working on projects.”

The holdback bond could leave a contractor vulnerable to double jeopardy if an unpaid subtrade or supplier further down the payment chain should file a lien which results in a claim under the bond, SAC says.

“Contractors should be wary of the short-term fix that a holdback bond would provide, and perhaps explore less risky and more sustainable options,” he said.

These may include federal business assistance initiatives such as the Business Credit Availability program (BCAP) and the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), both of which were created to provide Canadian businesses with emergency operating liquidity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“None of these alternative approaches are ideal,” SAC says. Ness says the best and most appropriate solution to the holdback dilemma is to eliminate the problem that created it in the first place.  He “again called on the premier and attorney general to issue an amendment to the March 20 order that would exempt the Construction Act and allow holdback money to flow once again,” SAC says.


  1. I don’t get it, we have a job site going on 5.6 acres with 4 people on it with washrooms, hand sanitizer, and has to shut down. yet new-con resitental sites with 15 people on them? don’t really get it?

  2. I honestly cannot wait until this pandemic is over.
    I’m really glad that vaccines are finally being rolled out to the masses.
    These lockdowns have got to end. Too many small businesses are suffering.
    It would be devasting if another lockdown is issued or extended after May 20th.
    The government can’t make up their minds while the general public is losing their minds.


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