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Support for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Image: Tim Dennell/Flickr

On Thursday, April 9, I joined the first of a series of webinars the Workers' Action Centre (WAC) and the Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign in Ontario are organizing to help people understand the benefits provided under current COVID-19 relief packages and to organize for more. On May 23, a similar webinar is being organized for Spanish speaking workers, and webinars have also been organized for other language communities and specific regions of Ontario. 

The most important message in the webinar was that we need to keep standing with our communities and organizing until everyone is protected -- until everyone has paid sick days and can access benefits and supports regardless of whether they have a social insurance number and whether they are working. So please learn about the HELP: Health Emergency Labour Protections Campaign and continue to support the push for even more universal benefits. The Workers' Action Centre has expanded their phone-line hours and are taking calls from people who need support from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

Statistics Canada released numbers for job losses on May 8, 2020. Approximately three million workers have lost their job in addition to a 2.5 million increase of workers who have lost at least half of their hours of work. More than 7.5 million workers have applied for CERB income support payment ($2,000 per month). Many workers still do not qualify for CERB due to not having a valid social insurance number, working in the informal economy or being migrant workers.

Here are some other takeaways:

  1. The Ontario government has passed The Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. Among other things the act expands the powers of security officers and police to stop people for COVID-related offenses. Among the offenses are price gouging, operating despite being a non-essential business, having a gathering of more than five people who are not in the same family and not social distancing. This has caused a lot of stress for workers who are undocumented and are still going to work because of the new increased powers to ask for ID. A number of groups who are active around policing, carding and racial profiling as well as migrant worker justice are monitoring how these emergency orders are being enforced. You can report abuse to the Workers' Action Centre or check out policingthepandemic.ca.

  2. People who must report to work during this pandemic are indeed superheroes. It is wonderful that we recognize that. However, now we must demand that all essential workers get the essential protections needed to be safe at work such as paid sick days and decent wages. We need to keep organizing to make sure that these benefits are provided and that the new pandemic pay is not a temporary measure but permanent. 

    • If you feel your employer is not doing everything they should to make sure you are protected during the pandemic, you do have the right to demand safe working conditions. However, we know through a recent investigation by the Toronto Star that workers who fear contracting the virus have filed more than 200 work refusals but the Ontario Ministry of Labour has not upheld a single one. As more workers return to work, WAC anticipates many more calls on how safe workplaces are and whether employers are doing all they can to stop the spread of infection.  

    • Workers who are vulnerable to exploitation right now, such as undocumented cleaners, are reporting intensification of work and non-payment of all hours. Workers are having to make a choice right now between their income and their health. This is clearly not a choice. WAC is asking workers to call for any assistance and also to ensure workers are proactively documenting unpaid hours and violations of working conditions. 

  3. The federal Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) is available for all people over the age of 15, who reside in Canada (including permanent residents and people with work permits) have a social insurance number, have stopped working because of COVID-19 and made over $5,000 in 2019. The campaigning work done by the WAC, Fight for $15 and Fairness as well as the Migrant Rights Network and others have pushed to open the eligibility of CERB so that now part-time workers, seasonal workers, workers who get paid cash etc. can apply. There is now the new Canadian Emergency Student Benefit that will be available from mid May. Students will only get $1,250 every four weeks unless they have a permanent disability or dependents. One of major shortfalls of this new benefit is that international students are not eligible. Since the benefits are constantly changing, please refer to the federal government website for information about all benefits and eligibility, or register for the next WAC webinar which is May 28 at 7p.m. If you need help, call the Workers' Action Centre weekdays between noon and 5 p.m. EDT, and they will walk you through the process.

    • The Ontario government is also providing additional support for vulnerable Ontarians, including those who live in poverty, are homeless or unemployed, through social services relief funding administered through Ontario Works. The provincial government has also amended the Employment Standards Act to allow workers to take an unpaid leave of absence due to COVID-19 during which time workers cannot be fired. An important piece of information in regards to the changes to the Employment Standards Act: employers cannot ask for a medical note and must take your word for it. Please contact the Workers’ Action Centre if you need to access the unpaid emergency leave.

  4. If you are currently receiving support from Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support, and had a job and then lost it due to COVID-19, you can apply for CERB. You will have $900 clawed back by the Ontario government, but this will not impact your eligibility for additional supports like dental and drug coverage, rent subsidies and diet allowance.

Please register on $15 and Fairness's website for the upcoming webinars and events. Call and join the movement to make sure that everyone is supported. If you need support, you can also contact your Legal Aid Ontario clinic for support.

Written with contributions from Nil Sendil and Deena Ladd.

Image: Tim Dennell/Flickr

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