Ella Bedard, John No and Amy Brubacher are labour and employment lawyers working in Toronto with experience representing low-wage workers regarding employment-standards issues.
Many of us are grappling with the enormity of the response required to address the COVID-19 virus, which the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. We have all been asked to take preventative measures to “flatten the curve,” including practising physical distancing so that we can reduce the odds of overtaxing the healthcare system with emergency cases.
This has caused many businesses to voluntarily close their doors or implement reduced hours, and it may only be a matter of time before Canada decides to mandate the closing of more public spaces.
But while some of us can afford to take unpaid time off or work from home, many workers don’t have the necessary supports to do the same. That’s the reality if you’re employed in some of the biggest sectors of our economy, including health care, the service industry and manufacturing, or if you’re a freelancer. So the reality of the labour market means workers without protections will bear the financial brunt of any preventative pandemic measures.
On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford acknowledged this by announcing that his government would walk back some of last year’s changes to the Employment Standards Act, which eliminated paid sick days and emergency-leave provisions, and made it possible for employers to demand medical notes as a condition for granting sick leave.
Now, for at least the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, new legislation will provide job-protected leave to employees in isolation or quarantine, or those performing child care due to school closings, while also removing sick notes as a condition for accessing sick leave.
The Ford government, however, has not yet announced any paid-leave provisions. When asked last week if he would consider reinstating paid sick days, Mr. Ford said he was confident that encouraging employers to be reasonable was enough.
That’s risky and unrealistic thinking. As we know from trying to negotiate better wages and working conditions for our clients, employers don’t loosen the purse strings easily, and given the current economic downturn, we can only expect more belt-tightening. Mr. Ford needs to send a signal to employers that the government is taking the pandemic seriously, and that they should too.
After all, there is a clear link between employment laws and the protection of public health. Health-care providers have long recommended that workers have access to at least seven paid sick days and access to additional paid leave during public-health crises. This pandemic has exacerbated that need; on Saturday, the U.S. passed emergency measures giving some workers two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave, and Alberta followed suit with 14 days of paid job-protected leave.
The need is high in Ontario, after the Ford government announced that it would be closing public schools for two additional weeks after March break. Most health experts agree that this is the right call; teachers’ unions, who have been engaged in heated negotiations with the government for the past several months, have also commended the Minister of Education for taking decisive action.
But while Ontario’s new job-protection legislation would protect a parent from reprisal if they need to take care of their kids, it does nothing to ensure that those families can get by financially. Parents might be forced to turn to their social networks even more for support, but that creates another public-health danger, as the coronavirus is more dangerous to the grandparents and over-60 set who so often provide such child care. Some reports from Italy even suggest that the virus spread more quickly among aging populations when schools were closed, because grandparents were taking on more child-care responsibilities.
There is no way that we can expect individuals to actually abide by politicians’ calls to have citizens stay home from work or physically distance themselves without giving some thought to how those same people are expected to pay their bills next month. But the sole governmental response to providing income replacement for Ontarians unable to work has been the federal government’s waiver of the typical one-week waiting period to give sick individuals immediate access to Employment Insurance.
However, less than 50 per cent of all unemployed workers qualify for EI benefits, and the emergency rule change will not apply to many part-time workers, nor workers who only recently started their employment. They also won’t apply to the 15 per cent of workers who are self-employed, like the UberEats couriers delivering food to self-quarantined Canadians; they won’t apply to parents forced to stay home to take care of their kids.
Those workers who are eligible for EI will still have a tough time making ends meet, too; EI only provides up to 55 per cent of lost earnings.
As a society, we all cannot afford any worker going into work sick. If we truly want to take care of ourselves and each other, Canadians and our leaders need to consider the realities of people’s lives, recognize how interwoven we are and strengthen that social safety net.
After all, governments are taking bold measures to ensure that the economy does not crash because of COVID-19. Why can’t that same effort be devoted toward making sure that the workers that make the economy tick don’t have their lives crash around them?
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