If the pattern holds for the spread of COVID-19, workers at long-term care facilities will be key to caring for the ill and the most at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
But years of eroding labour protections place many of them at a double risk. If they get the virus and need to be quarantined, their paycheques may not cover their time away.
That has labour leaders calling for the B.C. government to immediately legislate protected sick days for health care workers. And they go further, urging the same across all sectors.
If their calls are heeded, a social side-effect of COVID-19 would be big changes to B.C.’s labour laws, a need that unions say is two decades in the making.
The fatality rate for the virus among the frail elderly is much higher than the general population. Just across the border in Washington State, a single nursing home has been linked to six death caused by the virus, placing the entire facility under quarantine.
In B.C., anyone who tests positive for the virus may be isolated away from their workplace for two weeks while the illness runs its course.
“We’d like the government to get ready now,” said BC Federation of Labour President Laird Cronk. “Let’s hope and pray that we don’t get to a pandemic situation.
“But in the event we do, what we don’t want to see is workers having to make the untenable decision of being afraid to lose their job if they’re diagnosed with something where they have to be quarantined for 14 days.”
The vast majority of long-term care workers are women and nearly half are people of colour. “Our members are really on the frontlines of health care and of infection control,” said Jennifer Whiteside, secretary-business manager at the Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents more than 50,000 health care workers in B.C., 20,000 of which work directly with seniors.
In 2001, the BC Liberal government introduced legislation allowing a number of long-term care operators to opt out of the existing master collective agreement, which guaranteed paid sick days to all workers in the sector. The result today is contract “fragmentation,” said Whiteside, disparate provisions across more than 80 separate agreements negotiated by HEU since 2001.
Whiteside looks back at the SARS virus outbreak in 2003, and notes, “What’s very different about the circumstances that we’re in now is that there is such incredible proliferation of different standards of sick leave, of pay and of wages and benefits.”
Available paid days off now range from eight to as many as 18 depending on whether the worker is employed directly by a provincial health authority or a contractor.
An estimated 5,000 long-term care employees, if quarantined, would not have enough sick days to be paid for the duration.
By law, unemployment benefits would not kick in for those workers unless they met certain requirements for accumulated work hours and only then after a week-long waiting period. The BC Fed is asking the federal government to remove those restrictions.*
If not, Cronk says B.C. could see people across sectors, including food service where the opportunity for transmission is particularly high, weighing coming to work sick against not being able to pay for the essentials of life.
Any who do decide they can’t afford to stay home sick would become likely spreaders of the coronavirus in long-term facilities, so it’s in the public interest to remove such financial pressures, labour leaders argue.
“Government has a responsibility in this unusual circumstance to take that untenable decision away, for good,” said Cronk.
*Story corrected March 6 at 4:20 p.m.