Update note – designating essential products and services

Update note – designating essential products and services

Late yesterday, the Ontario government gave further clarity to what it means by ‘essential’ products and services that can remain open as the government continues its response to the pandemic.  A total of 74 businesses or types of businesses were included in the list.


‘Essential workers’ has a particular meaning in Ontario’s labour law.  Under normal circumstances, the term is applied very sparingly, focused on a rare few individuals who are sufficiently well trained to do certain jobs and who, if they were not to report to work, their absence would pose too high a risk to public safety, health etc. This exceptional group of professions (nuclear workers, health care workers, law enforcement to name a few) are often governed by essential service agreements that are put in place during collective bargaining, ensuring that they continue to offer their essential service in times of labour disruption. It is rare that more than one of these services is impacted, or work disrupted simultaneously, however, the current pandemic is an extraordinary circumstance.


Given the scope of the crisis, how does a government go about deciding what is essential and what is not? In this particular case, the Government has a number of factors to weigh. The first is the need for key health and safety infrastructure to remain laser focused on efforts to contain and combat the current pandemic. The second is the economic fallout that would come by being too restrictive in your definition of “essential,” and finally ensuring that key “social” infrastructure continues operating so Ontarians can in turn continue to support vitally important social distancing. The Ontario government has therefore taken a much broader view of what is considered “essential” in building its list, taking in to account these complex and inter-related factors:

For example, we need our health care workers more than ever.  But, how does a health care worker with kids go to work when the daycare facilities are closed?  The province’s list confirms that health care workers will get daycare.  So too will other emergency workers.

We need food.  Grocery stores and everyone they rely on for supply are now essential.  We need medications.  Pharmacies and everyone who supplies them are essential.  With so many people self-isolating at home, as the government has directed, we need internet, phone, cable, news, light, heat and water to stay connected and to have basic needs met. All of those inputs are also essential.  Money still needs to flow. A wide array of financial services are now essential. Residents of nursing and long-term care facilities still need care there.  Those workers and everything needed to supply those facilities is now essential.

Manufacturing will also remain open in key sectors that support our industrial supply chain.

The full list can be found here.


While the list broadens the concept of ‘essential’ considerably, a wide variety of businesses and professions did not make the cut.  In general, those individuals are expected to remain at home. Most office and retail workers fall into this category.   If they can work from home, they should.

The list balances interests in keeping as much of the economy rolling vs the risks of having people gather.  It balances an interest in keeping things as normal as possible – adding liquor and cannabis stores to the list as both a ‘recreational’ and harm reduction measure – while maintaining the prohibition on restaurants and bars opening for anything other than take out.

The current definition of “essential” is by no mean final and will no doubt shift based on how hard the pandemic hits the province and the need to further clamp down to contain its spread. We will continue to actively monitor developments and provide you with the best information we can to help you, your employees and your family navigate through this unprecedented time.