Image: NIAID/Flickr

Earlier in March, Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu predicted between 30 and 70 per cent of the population could contract COVID-19. To “flatten the curve,” workers across the country have been told to stay home. As the effects of coronavirus unfold, it’s clear neither the provincial nor the federal governments were in the least prepared for fallout from millions of workers losing income and jobs. There was also no plan for low-income workers who have no choice but go to work sick in order to pay their bills.

March 18, the federal government announced a multi-billion dollar care benefits plan specifically for workers who don’t qualify for EI or paid sick-leave. However, this package inadequately addresses the financial and psychological impacts on society’s most marginalized and vulnerable workers.

“We need to make it easier for workers to get EI by reducing the eligibility requirement to 360 hours. This is vital for the vast numbers of workers in precarious, part-time and contract work across Canada,” said Pam Frache, coordinator of the campaign group Fight for $15 and Fairness. 

The advocacy group recognizes that all workers, including migrant and undocumented workers, urgently need income supports in order to be able to follow the advice of health workers and weather the consequences of job losses and interruptions in earnings as a direct or indirect result of COVID-19.

Frache acknowledges the federal government’s new Emergency Care Benefit sounds promising. However, if it is administered along the lines of EI, providing only a portion of previous wages, it will be meaningless for the workers who need it most. According to Frache, “Providing only 55 per cent of a minimum wage is a disaster.”

The federal government’s Emergency Care Benefit is intended for workers who must stay home due to illness, self-isolation or to look after children. The Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Workers’ Action Centre are calling on the federal government to ensure a weekly minimum payment of $573 for all financial support programs during the pandemic, whether administered through EI regular and special benefits, the Emergency Care Benefit or the yet-to-be released COVID-19 Emergency Support Benefit for workers who can’t access EI. $573 is the maximum weekly benefit under current EI rules.

Since the most vulnerable workers live paycheque-to-paycheque and can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, let alone a week’s pay, advocates are calling on the federal government to waive the one-week waiting period for all EI regular special benefits. Currently, the waiving of the one-week waiting period applies only to those told to self-quarantine or who have COVID-19 and not for any other benefits.

“Our centre is also being inundated with phone calls from workers who are saying they can’t get through on the EI hotline,” said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre. “This reflects chronic understaffing of our EI system. We need a dramatic increase in EI staff — and we urgently need information to be made available in multiple languages online and over the phone.”

March 13, the Ontario government announced schools would close for an additional two weeks following March break. “We are very worried about the health consequences for grandparents who step in to help with child care,” said Carolina Jimenez, a registered nurse and coordinator of the Decent Work and Health Network. “We have heard reports from Italy that the unintended consequences of school closures was spreading COVID-19 to the elderly.”

Many live-in care workers don’t have full citizenship. Already vulnerable because of inadequate employment protections, these workers will be under increasing pressure to fill gaps in child care and household responsibilities.

Another potential crisis is looming because applications for the COVID-19 Emergency Support Benefit, the benefits intended to help workers who don’t qualify for EI, won’t be available until April and there’s no guarantee of turnaround time. The language being used around payments is also unclear, stating workers may receive up to $900 biweekly. Any emergency fund paying less than full wages to low-wage workers would be useless.

“We continue to be shocked that no level of government has prioritized adequate minimum paid emergency leave days,” said Frache. “All the medical evidence shows that paid emergency leave policies of not less than seven days, pay for themselves by allowing sick workers to stay home or look after sick kids, and by containing the spread of flu and other contagious diseases. In the context of coronavirus, paid emergency leave laws provincially and federally would have better protected public health — and bought the federal government time to roll out an effective, comprehensive plan to stabilize the economy.”

The full list of measures prepared by the Workers’ Action Centre and the Fight for $15 and Fairness is available here.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: NIAID/Flickr

Editor’s note, March 21, 2020: This story previously stated that “workers may receive up to $900 per week” through the Emergency Support Benefit. In fact, workers may receive up to $900 biweekly. The story has been corrected.