Leaving Nobody Behind with COVID-19
On the heels of the COVID-19 crisis, the federal government has now improved access to Employment Insurance, and some provinces, but not all, have discouraged employers from requiring sick notes. Banks have offered a six month payment deferral for mortgages and organizations responsible for workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety in some provinces have produced timely guidance material.
Much more needs to be done.
Little if any action has been taken to relieve the needs of tenants who can’t meet their rental payments. No one in Canada, including the precariously employed, should be left homeless or destitute because of COVID-19 and the consequences it will have for both the health of our people and our economy. We must ensure that workers have the ability to stop working if they are ill, in their own interest, and in the interest of public health.
Statistics Canada estimates that between 27% and 45% of all Canadian workers do not have full-time stable jobs. This does not include low wage earners with full time stable jobs who still live from paycheck to paycheck. The precariously employed include: the solo self-employed including those working in the gig economy; those on temporary contracts, working on call or for temporary employment agencies; and part-time workers, including the involuntary part-time.
In many provinces, full time low-wage earners are also in situations of employment precarity where employers may lay them off at will or where non-unionized workers can be fired for being absent for more than three days, even if they are absent because of illness. Labour legislation does not discourage employers from requiring sicknotes to justify absences.
Bill 148 in Ontario had curtailed employers’ right to require sicknotes, but that provision was repealed by the Ford Government’s Making Ontario Open for Business Bill 47. Now we’ve heard promises that legislation is in the works that will ensure employers no longer require sickness notes in Ontario for those in quarantine, although the legislation has yet to be tabled.
Anyone can be at risk of contracting COVID-19 at work, but workers in certain sectors, such as health care, and also those working with the public, are particularly at risk. Occupational Health and Safety legislation requires that employers protect workers from hazards, and workers have the right to refuse work that endangers their health.
Health and safety regulators and public health officials are mandated to proactively provide guidance to workers on the front lines to protect their health and safety and that of others.
If workers do become ill out of and in the course of their employment, workers’ compensation should normally be provided. Compensation boards need to adapt their requirements of all injured workers in light of current challenges to the health care system.
Lots of workers will be falling through the cracks of a very uneven social safety net in Canada, primarily provincially regulated with regard to labour legislation, and federally regulated, with regard to Employment Insurance.
In other words, it is highly likely that some workers will not be able to pay their rent or feed their families if the current crisis is to go on for weeks or even months. Our governments need to take more action.
Legislation improving Labour Standards and Workers’ Compensation coverage is required to ensure that all workers who are absent because of illness or in quarantine should be guaranteed economic support while they are away, regardless of their contractual status. They should not be required to produce sick notes by their employers and they should be protected from reprisals if they are absent for health reasons.
New measures should be introduced to protect the jobs of workers who are unable to work because of COVID-19. Provinces should enact temporary prohibition of evictions for non-payment of rent.
It sometimes takes a crisis to reveal all the fault lines in our flawed social safety nets. We can weather the difficulties arising from COVID-19, but only if we face it together, and make sure to leave no one in Canada behind.
Katherine Lippel is the Distinguished Research Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Law and a member of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa.