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Frontline workers still fighting for adequate sick days in Ontario

Nurses, personal support workers, grocery store employees in Ontario are being forced to choose between taking a sick day and making ends meet

by Fernando Arce

Personal support worker Febe Jimenez speaking during the Decent Work and Health Network webinar, April 16.
Personal support worker Febe Jimenez speaking during the Decent Work and Health Network webinar, April 16.

People working in Ontario on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic are calling for more adequate sick day allowances. Many workers have as few as three sick days per year, and those days are unpaid, and may require a doctor’s note.  

In January 2018, premier Doug Ford repealed the two legislated paid sick days workers had fought for and won from the previous Liberal government. 

The Decent Work and Health Network is calling for seven permanent paid sick days throughout the year as well 14 extra ones during a crisis. The Network “is a group of health workers and trainees advocating for better health by addressing working and employment conditions in Ontario,” according to their website. 

Terrible Situations

Febe Jimenez, a personal support worker at a Hamilton retirement home, has seen many of her colleagues go into work “extremely afraid” because they lack the required personal protective equipment (PPE). Many of them also worked in more than one facility until a recent government directive prevented them from doing so. The problem, Jimenez said during a press conference on April 16th organized by the Decent Work and Health Network, was that many of them felt they had no choice.

“It’s been hard for all the workers, especially the ones who work in agencies, travel to different homes, some locations in Hamilton,” she said. “Obviously, our coworkers didn’t have a choice. Most of them have two jobs nowadays, and they need that to make full-time work for themselves.”

Jimenez’s employer is temporarily providing part-time workers the opportunity to work full-time hours, which she said is preventing staff from having to “go back and forth to two different jobs” – which puts “the whole home at risk.”

In other workplaces where paid sick or emergency days are offered by the employer, the issue is that they are insufficient even in normal times, much less during a pandemic.

Tina Dagnall, a nurse’s aide in Port Hope, said her employer offers one paid sick day for every 150 hours worked, for a total of 12 a year.

But if on top of the mandatory five-days off for precautionary reasons, the worker then chooses to be swabbed for COVID-19, that’s another seven days until they get a result. That’s their entire 12 days for the year. As a result, many of her colleagues are already “out of sick time due to precautionary measures.”

“Without PPE, we’re already at risk of getting influenza and going off if we do get an outbreak,” Dagnall said during DWHN’s conference. 

This means many continue going into work sick.

“They risk it because they can’t afford to be off,” she said. “We have single mothers at home. If they have no paid sick time, two to three weeks, they can’t afford that. They need to get paid like they normally would get paid.”

This is true of all workers on the frontlines.

Veronica Zaragoz, a former cleaner-turned community organizer said most cleaners rarely make minimum wage, get no overtime, no vacation pay and no sick days, and are forced to work whether feeling unsafe or ill. There is also rampant lack of health and safety equipment to handle the dangerous cleaning chemicals they work with. 

“The conditions were and are, until now, terrible,” she said at the virtual conference. 

“(Everyday), cleaners put their lives and health at risk because they are one of the most vulnerable workers in this emergency...We have to give workers the laboural rights they deserve, and do it permanently...They are essential workers not only today. They are essential all the time.”

Public health hazard

According to Charlene Nero, a staff representative for the union LiUNA local 3000 and a worker at a retirement home, most frontline workers -- from nurses and PSWs to cleaners and housekeeping assistants -- make between $14.50 to $25.00 per hour. 

While she recognized that some employers have stepped up with wage premiums, she says that a 20 percent increase across the board is necessary to provide a livable wage that could ensure more people remain in a profession already suffering from dwindling numbers, yet evidently essential.

“A lot of people at $15-an-hour who are being forced to work now are not staying in this field no matter how much they love it and no matter how much they care,” she said. “They are going to go somewhere where their lives aren’t at risk and where they feel respected.”

Doris Grinspun, Chief Operating Officer of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO), says that between 45 to 50 percent of PSWs in Ontario have felt forced to take up employment in more than one facility to “make ends meet.”

The government’s order says that workers must remain with one employer to avoid exposing seniors, who are the most vulnerable. 

But Grinspun insists that until decent living wages and full-time hours with benefits are offered to all frontline workers, society at large will continue facing a “public health hazard.”

“It’s not only a burden on the worker, whether it’s a nurse or PSW,” she said. “It’s a burden on the clients.” In the best case, patients are neglected due to forced staff absenteeism; in the worst, the pandemic is taken “from one place to another.”

While governments have been taking action during the COVID-19 emergency to help some workers, Rechev Browne, a grocery store employee who spoke at the DWHN’s conference, says those measures must be made permanent for them to make real changes in people’s lives.

Browne said that his employer had agreed to provide workers with a $2-per-hour increase to be able to keep his store open. But without it being permanent nor tied to paid sick and emergency leave throughout the year, Browne insists it will remain “impossible” to make ends meet. 

“You give us premium pay, but don’t give us paid sick leave, paid protection?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense. It’s like giving us flour and telling us to go make bread, but you don't give us yeast. It’s impossible.”


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