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A thank you sign for essential workers during the pandemic in East Toronto on April 15, 2020. With cases spiking across Canada, it makes sense to send more of our best weapons, vaccines, to this new front line.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The front line in the war against COVID-19 has moved from long-term care residences to essential workplaces such as warehouses, factories, food-processing plants and construction sites, and the neighbourhoods where their workers live.

Data published by Toronto Public Health show that places like those mentioned above are home to 33 out of 44 current workplace outbreaks in the city. And unlike non-essential businesses such as restaurants, gyms and nail bars, they can’t be closed down.

The data underscore the call by this page to target essential workers for vaccines, rather than continuing to mostly distribute doses based on age.

Essential workers are the people of all ages who make sure that online orders are fulfilled, and that grocery stores have everything from fresh produce to toilet paper. They work side-by-side with others and don’t have the luxury of commuting from their bedroom to their kitchen table every morning.

With cases spiking across Canada, it makes sense to send more of our best weapons – vaccines – to this new front line.

In the long run, vaccines are going to make all the difference. But in the short term, they can’t do the job. There also needs to be frequent rapid testing available in essential workplaces, and paid leave for those who have been exposed to the virus.

It’s become painful to push for rapid testing in Canada. To do so is to pound one’s head against a wall. The provinces have shown surprisingly little enthusiasm, even though there are millions of rapid tests sitting unused in warehouses.

They would be mighty useful at this point in helping to identify infected essential workers, which could help to stop the chain of infection. But there would still need to be a real incentive for these workers to stay home, and for their employers to encourage them to do so. Many of these workers and workplaces have no paid sick leave.

For too many essential workers, the choice is stark: work and get paid, or stay home and lose income. There’s an inherent unfairness in that, given how other Canadians are relying on these workers to go to work, so they can stay home.

Ottawa created the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) last year to help people who can’t work because they’re ill, or need to self-isolate, but don’t have paid sick leave. It originally provided a maximum of two $500 payments. The limit was raised to four, but the program still isn’t up to the task.

The CRSB is cumbersome, requiring people to reapply for each week’s benefit. It’s also not suited to the fast-moving nature of the pandemic in the third wave. Workers who need just two days off – for example, to get tested and await results – have to apply for a full week’s benefit at once. Absent a lockdown, they also need authorization from their employer or a medical professional to stay home.

Other than Prince Edward Island and Quebec, the provinces don’t mandate paid sick days. The remaining provinces have washed their hands of the issue during the pandemic, leaving it up to Ottawa to find a solution.

What’s being forgotten is that we are in an emergency. Essential workplaces are the source of COVID-19 outbreaks that are spreading to families and communities, and until immunization is much more extensive, the only way to stop that is to pay infected people to stay home.

But so far, no government has been willing to pick up the tab, leaving some of Canada’s most precariously employed workers to choose between sacrificing their income for everyone else’s well-being, or going to work when they are mildly sick but highly infectious.

No one is asking for a permanent solution to the issue of paid sick leave. This is about epidemiology, not economic equity. The latter debate can be had another time.

What is needed right now is an emergency sick leave measure, for the next six months. Ottawa has spent $391-million on the CRSB to date; that’s nothing compared with the $322-billion it spent on all relief measures last year. It would be smart to spend more, in a targeted way, to fix this problem.

An emergency program of paid sick leave for essential workers, delivered by employers but paid for by the federal government, is needed. Combined with vaccinations and rapid testing in essential workplaces, it would make for an impressive three-pronged counterattack against COVID-19.

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