'Many health workers, food and sanitation workers, security guards and others are under immense pressure to continue working, despite being sick'
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, several groups are calling for improved pay and benefits, and greater protection, for those workers on the front lines.
Following recent tragedies in long-term care homes, group homes and hospitals, the Ontario government’s announcement to top up workers’ pay so they can forego shifts at multiple long-term care homes should have been introduced before hundreds of deaths took place, says Carolina Jimenez, registered nurse and coordinator of the Decent Work and Health Network.
“And they still lack crucial paid emergency leave days,” she says. “We know that low-pay and part-time hours make it almost impossible for workers to take unpaid time off. As a result, many health workers, food and sanitation workers, security guards and others are under immense pressure to continue working, despite being sick.”
Through an online survey of almost 2,000 frontline workers inside and outside the health care sector, there’s a call for urgent help on basic protections, including paid emergency leave, personal protective equipment (PPE), decent wages, full-time work, and better health and safety protections, says Charlene Nero, a staff representative for LiUNA local 3000.
“Since so many frontline workers are women, they also flagged the lack of affordable, high-quality, safe child care. Many of these workers are now juggling child care as well as working in these intolerable conditions.”
Unifor is expressing concern about the directive by Ontario Premier Doug Ford that essential workers at long-term care homes who have tested positive for COVID-19 but aren’t showing symptoms to return to work.
"The directive states that staff who have tested positive and have symptom resolution and are deemed critical may return to work 'under isolation,'" says Jerry Dias, Unifor national president. "Sending what we know are potentially infectious people back into the most high-risk and vulnerable institutions demonstrates a lack of care that really borders on heartless. Someone must explain to me how a front-line caregiver can work under isolation."
While some grocery store workers are supposed to receive premium pay, they too have not been offered paid emergency leave days unless someone is specifically determined to be affected by COVID-19, according to the Decent Work and Health Network.
“Clearly, precarious employment anywhere is a public health hazard everywhere,” says Jimenez. ‘“Whether we are health workers, food workers, cleaners, security guards, or delivery workers, we need to ensure that everyone has decent work, basic health and safety protection and, crucially, paid emergency leave. Every single worker needs a minimum of seven paid days off as a permanent measure. And during an outbreak, all workers - whether they are unionized or not - should be legally entitled to an additional 14 paid days.”
A recent ADP Canada survey found that 25 per cent of workers do not feel safe coming to work in the time of COVID-19.