Toronto, Canada – When Carolina Lopez woke up with a sore throat in November, her mind immediately turned to the worst-case scenario: COVID-19.
For the Toronto resident, who works two jobs as a restaurant waitress and cleaner, a positive COVID diagnosis wouldn’t just affect her health – it could mean losing the pay she needs for rent, groceries and more. transportation.
“Every time you go out you are at risk of getting sick and you just can’t afford to get sick,” Lopez told Al Jazeera. “If you get sick and stay at home, you are not going to receive money to meet your basic needs.”
Lopez ultimately did not have COVID-19 and she recovered from her illness after a few days.
But his fear that a positive COVID-19 diagnosis could lead to financial disaster is shared by thousands of essential workers around the world and in Canada, where a wave of infections is pushing health systems in many provinces to the brink. from the abyss.
The second wave has also sparked growing calls for paid sick leave in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, where worker advocates, city officials and public health experts say workers cannot staying home when sick, which fuels the spread of the virus.
On January 22, Ontario reported a seven-day average of 2,703 new daily cases of COVID-19 – and the province overtook Quebec on Saturday to record the highest number of infections in the country, at more than 252,000 since the start of the pandemic.
Amid the recent increase in cases and hospitalizations, the Ontario government issued a emergency order at home earlier this month, imposing stricter lockdowns until at least February 10 across the province.
But Premier Doug Ford has failed to respond to growing demand for paid sick leave for essential workers – fueling frustrations among worker advocates who say such a step is needed to stem infections.
Shortly after being elected in 2018, Ford decided to eliminate emergency leave provisions for Ontario workers that had been introduced by the previous government, including two guaranteed sick days. Currently, workers in Ontario can take three days of unpaid sick leave after working for two weeks. The province also passed new rules to allow employees to take “emergency infectious disease leave with job protection” for COVID-19-related reasons – but it’s also not paid.
There are currently 256 workplace outbreaks in the province, according to the most recent The data, including 46 in the retail trade and 24 in the food industry.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto Medical Officer of Health, recently advised Ontario guarantees five days of permanent paid sick leave to workers after three months of employment. That figure, she said, is expected to rise to 10 days during an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
De Villa said in her report that only 42 percent of Canadian workers have access to paid sick days, while that rate drops to around 10 percent for low-wage workers, many of whom were deemed essential during the pandemic.
Toronto Board of Health too urged the province to follow de Villa’s recommendations on paid sick days and ensure that all workers can take protected and paid time off to care for sick loved ones.
Joe Cressy, Toronto City Councilor and Chairman of the Board, said: “The truth is that COVID will continue to spread in critical workplaces and our communities unless we now guarantee paid sick leave. .
More than 60% of workplace outbreaks in Toronto have occurred on the front lines. Our essential workers are at increased risk of infection. The truth is, COVID will continue to spread to critical workplaces and our communities unless we now guarantee paid sick leave.
– Joe Cressy (@joe_cressy) January 11, 2021
Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Center, a group that advocates for better working and employment conditions in Ontario, said essential workers live in constant stress because they have to choose between going to work sick. or stay at home without Paying.
“I think essential workers are very worried and feel they are putting their health on the line every time they go to work because they haven’t paid for sick days,” she told Al Jazeera.
In particular, guaranteed paid sick leave would benefit low-wage frontline workers, including taxi drivers, factory workers and cashiers in supermarkets and big box stores, she said. “They’re insecure, low-paid, or casual, so all of these factors, combined with the fact that we’re seeing infection rates increase, lend themselves to a sense of stress and panic.”
In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched a program to provide financial assistance to essential workers who need to take time off work due to COVID-19. The Canadian Recovery Sickness Benefit covers up to 55 percent of an employee’s earnings to a maximum of $ 595 per week for a maximum of two weeks.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the office of Canada’s Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough, said the measure aims to provide workers with paid sick leave “if it is not a protection provided by their provincial government”.
“We did this so that no worker – no matter where in Canada they live or who they work for – would have to choose between going to work while affected by COVID-19 and putting food on the table. table, ”the statement read.
But Ladd said only workers showing symptoms of COVID-19 and having lost 50% of their job in one week can apply for the program. Even if they meet these criteria, they usually have to wait two to four weeks to receive the funds, she added.
“And the sick days prescribed by the province are therefore essential, because they mean that workers will not have their wages cut off if they are sick or if they have to take a day off to take a COVID test.
Harry Godfrey, press secretary for the Ontario Ministry of Labor, told Al Jazeera that by negotiating a COVID-19 economic stimulus package – the secure restart agreement – with the federal government, it was agreed that Ottawa would offer help with paid sick leave.
“We appreciate the federal government’s work on paid sick leave, which, as they point out, means workers don’t have to choose between going to work and putting food on the table. To date, more than 110,000 Ontarians have applied for the paid sickness benefit, ”Godfrey said in a statement.
Godfrey also noted that the provincial government has legislated an amendment to the Employment Standards Act that “ensures that those who stay at home to self-isolate or care for a loved one will not be fired.”
Speaking to reporters this month, Ford said the introduction of paid sick days at the provincial level would double what the federal government already offers – and said his government will not offer subsidies for sick leave. sickness paid.
But Ontario mayors, the provincial opposition party and experts in public health and medicine have urged the Ford government to quickly take paid sick leave in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Dr Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto, said it “stunned” his mind that Ontario had not yet done so.
Meanwhile, he said people of color were disproportionately affected by the pandemic in the province, and many often could not self-isolate either, without fear of infecting loved ones.
“These are often people living in households that are multigenerational in nature,” Sharkawy told Al Jazeera. “When they get sick, they don’t have the luxury of being in their space, using their own bathroom, having their own bedroom, their own bedroom to safely separate from others. members of their family.
He said the province’s appeals for people to stay at home fall short when they aren’t addressing the root causes of the virus’s spread. “I’m very disappointed when all I hear is better stay home or do better,” said Sharkawy.
“It’s falling on deaf ears when you don’t change the systemic issues that keep people from doing better and give them job security and paid sick leave that will motivate them and give them a certain support.