A major B.C. union umbrella organization is calling on provincial and federal governments to protect workers from lost pay or termination as both levels of government ramp up appeals to self-imposed 14-day quarantines — or isolation if they are sick — in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“While B.C.’s response to the virus has been hailed for its thoroughness from a public health perspective, the recommended 14-day self-isolation has brought to light serious concerns for workers and their families,” the BC Federation of Labour said in a press release Tuesday.
Provincial health officials have implored individuals who suspect they have come in to contact with anyone carrying the virus to self-quarantine for 14-days, the maximum incubation period of the novel coronavirus. Canada Public Health Agency has also requested that all people entering Canada with a travel history in in China or Iran voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days.
The call comes a day after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Canada’s first death due to COVID-19. A elderly man at North Vancouver's Lynn Valley Care Centre succumbed to the disease Sunday.
Provincial health authorities have also ramped up calls for individuals and organizations to impose social distancing measures. That has led to the cancellation of several public events in the Tri-Cities, including a 6,000-person gathering in celebration of the Iranian New Year, five international school trips and, most recently, a planned tour of Europe by a Coquitlam Metro-Ford soccer team.
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The contagion has already wreaked havoc in the financial markets. Monday, a massive early morning selloff triggered automatic circuit breakers to shut down the New York and Toronto stock exchanges. The selloff — compounded by an ongoing oil production dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia — led to the largest one-day drop in the market since the 2008 recession.
But while billions of dollars were wiped off the books within hours, a lot of the most immediate economic pain was forecast to trickle down to wage earners losing shifts — or even their jobs — as the economic effects of the virus ripple across economies of dozens of countries.
In the U.S., Congress is assembling an aid package to help working families weather lost paycheques and the Trump administration has proposed a payroll tax relief.
But in B.C., paid sick leave is not covered by the the province’s Employment Standards Act, a fact which leaves “many workers — including part-time and casual workers — in a precarious situation.”
The organization said it’s urging the provincial government to issue guidance to employers to keep their workplaces safe. That means reminding workers they have the right to refuse unsafe work and considering waiving the need for a doctor’s note when someone is sick with the virus. The BC Fed is also asking the federal government to waive the one-week waiting period for access to Employment Insurance for those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
“Workers should not have to choose between their health and their ability to keep their jobs and pay their bills,” said BC Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk in the press release. “Ensuring paid and protected sick leave during a pandemic is an immediate and practical step governments can take to protect public health, limit the spread of infection, and remove an untenable choice for workers.
“Paid and protected sick leave is not some luxury benefit. It’s an essential public health priority,” added Cronk. “Let’s make sure our response to this virus doesn’t exacerbate economic insecurity.”
The BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents about 80,000 workers across the province, echoed the BC Feb call to drop the requirement for a doctor’s note when sick with COVID-19.
“Our provincial government has made the responsible decision to waive their employees’ need for doctor’s notes for COVID-19-related illness and our union urges all employers in B.C. follow suit,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith in press release.
In an email to The Tri-City News, a spokesperson from the B.C. Ministry of Labour said “the government was engaging with the federal government” to support workers and businesses and to figure out “how to best utilize the Employment Insurance program.”
The spokesperson also noted that the government encourages employers to allow their workers to stay home if they feel sick.
Should the economic impact of the virus put more pressure on workers, the BC Fed is also urging the federal government to consider other forms of income support.
Monday Finance Minister Bill Morneau also provided little detail of the federal government’s plans, saying only that it was "looking at taking some initiatives this week" to help affected workers and families, ensure businesses make it through financial challenges, and keep Canada's health-care system healthy.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said in question period the government was "planning for worst-case scenarios."
And on Tuesday, Premiere John Horgan told the Surrey Board of Trade the virus will affect the economy in the short term, while Anita Huberman, the board's chief executive officer, said all levels of government should include businesses in their planning processes.
— with files from the Canadian Press