The City of Toronto says it has instructed security companies under contract to accommodate their employees with religious exemptions after a national Sikh advocacy organization called out the municipal government's "clean-shave" policy around N95 masks, which the group says has led to demotions and layoffs.
According to Toronto’s masking mandate, which the city most recently updated on June 22, all staff at homeless shelters and similar congregate settings who come into contact with clients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 or those working in settings where there is a suspected or declared outbreak of the virus must wear a N95 respiratory mask.
These masks, which need a good seal around the nose and mouth, cannot be properly fitted on individuals with a beard.
Workers who cannot abide by this directive due to creed, religious beliefs, practices, or observances are given the option of meeting with their supervisor/manager to explore other accommodations.
Balpreet Singh Boparai of the Ottawa-based World Sikh Organization (WSO) of Canada, said this “unfair and unnecessary” policy has resulted in more than 100 contracted security guards being laid off or reassigned as their faith requires they not cut or shave their hair or beard.
“Such relocations often come with a demotion in both rank and salary. In many instances, individuals who had been hired as supervisors or managers have been demoted to security guards,” WSO said in a July 4 release.
The group wants the city to review the policy and reinstate the affected workers.
“It has caused havoc in the lives of these security guards,” said Boparai, who serves as WSO’s spokesperson and legal counsel.
“They’ve got an impossible situation. … The solution isn’t shaving, it’s realizing this rule isn’t necessary.”
Boparai, who last month wrote to Mayor John Tory and all members of City Council to demand an “urgent resolution” to this issue, said the vast majority of the time security guards can do their job safely by wearing a medical mask, but said there may be “some very rare situations” where that’s not possible and that is understandable.
“But, kicking out over 100 guards is not the right way to do this,” he said, adding these workers “served through the height of the COVID pandemic wearing medical masks and were not required to be clean shaven.”
“The new clean shave rules have been introduced at a time when visitors to City sites are no longer required to be masked. The clean-shave requirement is also not being enforced for staff and workers at city sites,” WSO said in a release.
Speaking with CP24 Monday evening, Boparai said he does not want to take the legal route, but his group has an option take the city to the Human Rights Tribunal if it does not fix the situation.
"These security guards really feel as though they've been used and abused, and now they're being discarded just pretty much like garbage," Boparai said. "I mean, they worked to the height of the pandemic when their lives were actually at risk. And now, there's been no attempt to accommodate them whatsoever."
Birkawal Singh Anand, who has worked as a contracted security officer at a Toronto respite centre since last spring, said he recently received an email from his employer, ASP Security Services, telling him to shave his beard or he’d be out of a job.
“If you want to work, from next week onwards, you’ll have to be clean shaved,” he told CTV Toronto.
Anand, who said shaving his facial hair would be akin to “peeling his skin off,” called the incident “disturbing and humiliating.”
“Everyone’s freedom of speech and human rights have been protected. For me, if I cannot follow my religion, it is something disgusting, right,” he said.
To make matters worst, Anand said the accommodation offered to him by his employer amounted to both a demotion and a pay cut.
ASP Security Services said they tried to find accommodations for the affected workers.
Two other security companies that also have contracts with the city – Garda World and Star Security – did not respond to CTV Toronto’s request for comment on the situation.
CITY WORKING TO RESOLVE ISSUE
In a statement issued Monday evening, the city said it is "confident" that contracted security guards with religious exemptions can be accommodated.
"The city is working directly with security guard companies contracted to its shelter system to ensure these accommodations are provided and no contract employee is unable to work as a result of public health masking directives," the statement read.
The city added that it has also directed the companies to bring back any employee that was fired.
Security companies who do not follow its direction could see their contract terminated, the city said, noting that it is looking at all legal options.
"The city does not tolerate, ignore, or condone discrimination, and is committed to promoting respectful conduct, tolerance and inclusion, always," the statement read.
"City staff work to ensure policies are inclusive, and policies are assessed routinely to ensure they respect the rights and freedoms of all those who work for the city – be they full-time or part-time employees, or employees of contractors."
Mayor John Tory said in a separate statement that he asked staff to work with contractors to resolve the issue.
"No city policy allows contractors to ignore or dismiss their employees' religious beliefs or to fail to accommodate them. Any contract employees who were not accommodated for their religious beliefs should be immediately accommodated by the contractor," Tory said.
"I fully expect city staff to continue investigating this complaint and to make any and all changes necessary, up to and including legal action, to make sure Sikh residents and people of all religions are fully respected."
In an earlier statement, City of Toronto Spokesperson Brad Ross said one possible N95 mask accommodation is a full overhead breathing apparatus, "but City Occupational Health and Safety have advised it is not suitable for use by Security Guards due to hearing and visibility restrictions."
"Just like City staff, then, contractors must accommodate their employees in another work location, if, for religious reasons, they cannot be clean shaven," he said, noting the city is in the "process of reviewing the matter and making inquiries with the contractors."
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the policy "discriminatory" in a tweet.
"Many of these same individuals served us through the height of the COVID pandemic. They deserve to be immediately reinstated," Singh tweeted.
Back in March 2020, bearded Sikh RCMP officers were barred from performing frontline policing duties as the organization required that all officers be fitted with N95 masks. They were allowed to return to duty in October 2020 after WSO advocated on their behalf.