Nine lives. That is nine healthcare workers: six personal support workers, two hospital cleaners and one nurse. Nine lives too many that Ontario has lost to COVID-19 already. These deaths are among at least 3,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among nurses, first responders, lab workers, personal support workers (PSWs), respiratory therapists, hospital cleaners and other healthcare workers on the front lines during the pandemic. Their stories have highlighted the dire need for personal protective equipment. But there is another long-standing thread woven into these tragic losses: too many workers still lack basic employment protection rights and are being forced to choose their jobs over their health.
For years, health providers across Ontario have been advocating that all workers have access to at least seven paid sick days. In 2018, the Employment Standards Act was amended to provide 10 personal emergency leave days, the first two paid. While this made Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to provide paid sick days to all workers, it followed many jurisdictions in the U.S. San Francisco has been providing up to nine paid sick days for more than a decade. Polls in Ontario found 77 per cent support for paid sick days but in 2019, the Ford government dropped those two paid days and restricted the remaining eight. Then along came COVID-19.
Now we live in a time where physical distancing, hand-washing, self-isolating and staying home if even minimally symptomatic has become the mantra – the new “normal.” But we are concurrently failing to provide adequate paid sick leave to empower workers to protect their health, promote adequate recovery and decrease the spread of infection. This puts the health of many of the unsung heroes of the pandemic on the line. It puts the health of our communities on the line. And it reflects a willingness to leave some of the most vulnerable segments of our community behind.
We know those with low income are at higher risk during the pandemic for a multitude of reasons, and those concentrated in low-wage and precarious work environments are disproportionately women and people of colour. An analysis of COVID-19 deaths among healthcare workers in the U.K. found that most that died were nurses and healthcare support workers, majority women and people of colour – and the same is likely true in Ontario.
PSWs are among a mosaic of essential workers who are foundational during the pandemic and beyond. We must honour their contributions. But while gratitude is important, we must do more than just say “thank you.” We must honour their individual right to paid emergency leave so they are able to protect their health and the public’s without concern about job security.
The pandemic has also highlighted the broader definition of front-line workers – from agricultural and food workers to grocery and delivery workers. As with PSWs, they provide essential work but are denied essential protections. The largest COVID-19 outbreak in the country was at the Cargill meat processing plant in Alberta, with more than 1,500 cases and three deaths, including workers and a family member.
As the union president explained last month, “It’s a tragedy. We asked days and days ago for that plant to be closed temporarily for two weeks, send all of the workers home with pay to isolate. That was when we were aware of 38 cases… We’ll never know how much lower that number might’ve been.” In other words, this was a preventable tragedy and there will be many others – for workers and the broader community – as long as workers are denied paid emergency leave.
There’s been much conversation about when to reopen the economy based on case numbers but equally important is to discuss how to reopen the economy safely with workplace protections. This is critical as the front line of the pandemic shifts to every workplace where people work in close proximity. As public health officials have warned, relaxing restrictions could result in more cases. Expanded testing and contact tracing will be important to identify future waves of COVID-19.
But documenting an infection does not prevent it from spreading, and the mantra “stay home when sick” is meaningless if people don’t have the job stability and financial security to put this into practice. As a World Health Organization report explained during the last pandemic, “There are no doubts that gaps in paid sick leave result in severe impacts on public health and the economy as recent studies on H1N1 confirmed: In 2009, when the economic crisis and the H1N1 pandemic occurred simultaneously, an alarming number of employees without the possibility of taking paid sick leave days attended work while being sick. This allowed H1N1 to spread into the workplace causing infections of some 7 million co-workers in the U.S.A. alone.”
We’re now in the midst of another pandemic, another economic crisis and another lesson on the importance of paid sick leave. But this time people are starting to learn. New York state has mandated paid sick days, May 21 was a day of action across Canada to demand paid sick days and now there is discussion of paid sick days at the federal level. We need swift action from both provincial and federal governments to legislate paid sick days for all workers, including those regulated under the Canada Labour Code.
If testing positive for COVID-19 requires 14 days isolation, then all workers need 14 days paid emergency leave during the pandemic in addition to paid days in normal times. To safely re-open the economy, we need to strengthen workplace protections and learn the lessons of past pandemics from H1N1 to COVID-19: #PaidSickLeaveSavesLives.