By Valerie Lannon
At an online press conference on April 16, frontline workers gave first-hand accounts about why precarious employment is a health hazard for workers and the public. To limit further spread of COVID-19 and prevent these tragedies from repeating in the future, legislative action is urgently needed, starting with paid sick days, higher pay, and better health and safety protections for everyone.
Carolina Jimenez, a Registered Nurse and Coordinator of the Decent Work and Health Network, stated, “bad jobs lead to bad health, so we advocate for policies that keep staff and patients well. We demand permanent protections. In 2018 the provincial government scrapped paid sick days without consulting the Ministry of Health and ignoring the advice of public health experts. I don’t have paid sick days. We need higher minimum wages, better benefits and better, full-time hours as the permanent solution.”
Need sick time
Jimenez noted that all workers need 14 paid sick days during emergencies plus 7 permanent paid sick days for all workers. There is also a need for adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and training for all workers. As Jimenez argued PPE isn’t needed just for healthcare workers, all workers, such cleaners need adequate PPE.
Tina Dagnall is a unionized nurses’ aide at a nursing home in Port Hope. While the home has not yet had any COVID19 diagnoses, the place is currently facing a flu outbreak, which increases risk.
“We are at risk and are using up all our sick time. You have to wait seven days for test results to come back if you’ve been swabbed for COVID, said Dagnall. “But why do we have to use our sick time for precautionary measures around COVID? And if workers have run out of sick time they’re coming into work as they want to think they have just a common cold, because they can’t afford to not work and can’t wait for CERB.”
Dealing with stress
Dagnall is a union steward and sees the anxiety and stress that the pandemic is causing amongst her coworkers. “We are giving up more than the government realizes, with all we have to put aside. We don’t get to see our grandchildren. It’s very tough,” she said.
Febe Jimenez is a personal support worker at a retirement home in Hamilton. She works full time and has no paid sick days, she is also seeing her her coworkers dealing with the stress of the pandemic.
“My co-workers are afraid to come to work especially if other co-workers are going to multiple work sites. But they had no choice as they have to work in two places to create fulltime work. They have to pay their bills,” said Jimenez. When the work environment is not safe and wages are not proper you bring that stress home to your family. In terms of refusing unsafe work, it’s hard for us because you grow attached to patients so you feel stuck.”
Pay us like heroes
Veronica Zaragoz is a former cleaner in Toronto and is in contact with many people currently cleaning houses and malls. Such workers are only paid minimum wage if that, with some workers only getting paid $12 per hour. Zaragoz noted that cleaners had poor working conduition before the pandemic, and they don’t have access to paid sick time.
“The government says we are heroes but we are the most vulnerable. If cleaners are heroes then give them the rights they deserve, and give it to them permanently,” Zargoz said.
Workers’ rights not corporate greed
Rechev Browne is a grocery store worker in Toronto. Browne described the need for adequate protections and paid sick time as they see hundreds of customers a day. They used to have paid sick days before the Ford government legislated them away.
“Our boss announced premium pay, but he was forced to do so by our union, and without paid sick time it puts pressure on us to work longer hours,” said Brown. “This puts us at greater risk. It is super scary and dangerous. I risk my life on a packed bus to get to work.”
“My boss supports Ford and opposed the increase to the minimum wage. We know governments support bosses not workers. Paid sick time is not good for corporations,” said Brown. “Under socialism everyone would be taken care of and our taxes would benefit us not corporations. If we’d had paid sick time before the pandemic, my coworkers wouldn’t have to take unpaid time off. The government works hand in hand with corporations instead of giving us the services like paid sick time we require.”
Charlene Nero is LiUNA local 3000 staff representative representing 8,000 essential workers and she works part-time at a women’s shelter. When she asked other frontline workers what they needed most the answer was simple, better pay, full-time work and paid sick time.
“The government is protecting the profiteers instead of the people and refusing to do what it has the capacity to do,” Nero said. “It should revoke Bill 124 that put a wage freeze on directly funded workers, not revoke workers’ rights to pursue their grievances.”
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