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Protecting workers is key to protecting public health

March 9, 2020

3-minute read

The meltdown quickly caught the attention of policy-makers, who are now moving heaven and earth to reassure financiers their money is safe. In an apparently co-ordinated rescue mission, central banks around the world rushed to cut interest rates—including Wednesday’s shock half-point cut by the Bank of Canada. Whether this stabilizes markets, or instills more panic selling, remains to be seen.

But I am more worried about the impact of the virus on labour markets, than on capital markets. While they generate dramatic headlines, the mood swings of the paper markets do not actually determine the course of the real economy. Rather, GDP depends on real people working to produce actual goods and services—and it’s people, not money, who get sick.

So we need an equally forceful rescue mission for labour markets. Workers need protection and financial support—not just for fairness, but to help public health. Directives to self-quarantine for 14 days may soon apply to millions of Canadians, even many who are not sick. Self-quarantine alone would constitute a major financial burden for many households, never mind the costs of serious illness. Financial pressures will push many Canadians to go to work anyway—something we already know happens.

Protecting workers is all the more difficult because of the structural transformation in labour markets over the past generation. Today, almost half of employed Canadians face some dimension of precarity in their jobs: part-time or irregular hours, casual or labour-hire arrangements, or self-employment (even working “gigs” for a digital platform such as Uber). The elevated insecurity of work could be COVID-19’s best friend: driving people to keep doing their jobs, and spreading the virus, when they should be at home.

Here are top priorities for supporting Canadian workers as the virus spreads:

Sick Pay: There is no legislative requirement for sick pay in Canada. Ontario used to require two paid days per worker per year; sadly, abolishing that protection was one of Doug Ford’s first acts. Some employers offer paid sick leave, but many do not. And virtually no temporary, contract, or gig workers get it. It will be hard to fix this blind spot overnight, but labour ministers should announce their intention to legislate sick pay—and name and shame any employers (including digital platforms) that don’t.

Doctors’ Notes: Against the advice of health professionals, the Ford government also reinstated requirements for sick workers to obtain doctors’ notes. The last thing an overstretched health system needs is people visiting to collect needless documentation. This requirement should be immediately waived.

Job Security: Labour laws nominally protect workers’ jobs while they are off sick, but only to a limit (in Ontario it’s just three unpaid days of sick leave). Fourteen-day quarantines would put many workers in jeopardy of losing their jobs. Provincial and federal labour ministers should immediately empower employment and human rights tribunals to reinstate anyone fired for missing work.

Employment Insurance: Workers can apply for EI benefits if they cannot work due to illness. But they have to wait one week before the benefits kick in, and millions won’t qualify because they haven’t worked enough hours (600) in the preceding months. The waiting period and minimum hours rules should be waived for any worker who is advised to stay home during the pandemic.

Other Income Supports: Both to protect workers’ incomes and to grease the wheels of consumer spending, Ottawa should consider emergency one-time income supplements to all households if the contagion takes hold. The Australian government did this in the global financial crisis of 2009, mailing out $900 cheques to all tax-filers—and it was remarkably effective in staving off recession.

Health Care Workers: No-one faces greater risks than health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Health agencies need to immediately adopt the strongest protective standards for health workers dealing with COVD-19 cases (Ontario’s are currently best), and implement all recommendations from the Ontario commission that reviewed health worker protections after the SARS outbreak.

Canadians will have enough to worry about in coming weeks. They shouldn’t have to worry about keeping their jobs and paying their bills. We’re already pulling out the stops to reassure financial investors. Let’s offer the same assurances to people who actually work for a living.

Jim Stanford is Director of the Centre for Future Work and sits on the Member's Council of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This article originally ran in the Toronto Star on March 5.

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