Anti-covid measures open us all to the harsh realities of precarious work


WORKING WHEN YOU’RE SICK IS NOTHING NEW. Eighty-nine percent of us do it all the time. Mostly because we have no real choice—not even in a pandemic.

Employers in Canada are not required to provide paid sick days. Some do. Most don’t. And for the millions of us working on demand in the gig economy, paid sick days are unknown; never more than whispered rumors from the magical land of full-time, permanent work.

‘I’d have to be half dead’

“I’d have to be half dead to not go to work,” she said. “I’m always one contract away from an eviction notice.” The words come from a woman who is a precarious worker in Vancouver.

She’s a single mom, with two kids to raise. She spends 60 percent of her income on rent. For her the advice to stay home from work for 14 days meant for "a different class of people." 

“I don’t think people really understand what it means to not be able to miss work,” she says. “It’s the difference between eating or not, the difference between having a place to live or not.”

A 2019 report from “Behind the Numbers” confirms the essential class divide of paid leave:

  • 74 percent of the highest paid workers received paid leave from their employer
  • just 14 percent of the lowest paid workers received any paid leave.

Employers leave our lowest paid without a choice. They have to keep working. They have to take the risk of getting infected and/or infecting others.

“Workers should not have to choose between their health and their ability to keep their jobs and pay their bills,” says BC Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk.

Workers’ rights must be strengthened

According to a 2019 survey by Accountemps, 89 percent of Canadians say they go to work sick. Of these, 33 percent say they can’t, or don’t want to, use a sick day.

“COVID-19 is exposing the inadequacy of our labour laws on so many levels, says Deena Ladd, head of the Toronto-based Workers Action Centre.

Canada is one of just three major countries in the world that has no national sick day policy.

“The fact is workers who are unionized have more of an ability to negotiate working from home options and general flexibility,” says Ladd. “It’s all connected to collective agreements, not actual legislation.”

Government support a good start

The federal government will provide $2,000 a month for up to four months for workers who lose their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may not be enough. Experts believe the pandemic will last much longer than 16 weeks.

Also, many industries with the highest concentration of precarious employment, like hospitality and the service sector, will continue to be affected, should we be lucky enough to restrict the outbreak to 16 weeks.

Regardless of what our governments do, the physical and emotional cost of the struggle to make ends meet in a world turned upside down will bruise and shake us all, in ways big and small.

There is, and can never be, a government program for that.

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