Governments need to step in to protect workers

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) are concerned about our members, but also those that don't have the same labour rights and protections in the workplace.

Ottawa (18 March 2020) — The response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada has been changing daily with a focus on containing and treating the illness. But this outbreak is affecting more than just our health. It’s affecting our economy, our livelihoods, our wages and working conditions, and our savings for retirement.  

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is concerned about our members, but also those that don't have the same labour rights and protections in the workplace. We are doing our best to keep new information flowing in, but we are also providing guidance to our governments and employers about the best ways to protect workers and our communities. 

While new policy decisions and protocols are being put into place by every level of govenrment, workers are finding this time difficult and confusing. They are feeling the stress and worry of how they and their families will cope with possible illness, loss of work and loss of income. They are concerned about friends and loved ones falling ill, and are trying to make the best decisions for themselves, their coworkers and their communities.

Responses to COVID-19

There have been several different responses to the outbreak recently.

  • The Bank of Canada announced it will lower interest rates to 0.75% as a way to cushion the impact of the economic downturn.
  • The federal government has announced that it will provide $1 billion for new spending on the coronavirus. Most of this funding will go to provincial health systems. It also announced that there will be an additional $10 million in credit for small and medium-sized businesses.
  • The Alberta government had announced changes to sick time provisions for providing 14 days of paid sick leave. It appears as though the Premier is backing away from that point as no details have been announced yet.
  • The Ontario government has promised to table legislation that will provide job-protected leave for workers affected by the pandemic. That includes workers who need to self-isolate or quarantine, those who are told not to come to work, and those who need to care for others due to COVID-related reasons (e.g., children home because of school closures).
  • The Quebec government has announced that it will provide free child care services to essential service workers. It also announced that it has aside $150 million to provide short-term financial assistance to 65,000 workers who aren’t eligible for federal employment insurance who can’t work they or because they are in self-isolation. Workers will receive $573 weekly. 

Other governments and employers are having workers telework as much as possible. Others have suspended services, reduced hours of operation or closed offices completely, leaving workers unclear about their future income. This especially affects workers without a union, who don’t have the same level of protection through a collective agreement. Especially hard hit are the precarious workers employed in the retail, entertainment, hospitality and other service industries.

Workers need to know they won't be abandoned

In addition to the $1B funding for health care, the federal government has committed $5B in employment insurance for sick leave and has waived the first week for those who need to seek assistance. But it’s clear more needs to be done. Thousands of people are unable to access EI due to the because of the high level of requirements needed to qualify, and the government has not announced any changes.

Some employers are forcing workers to go in, despite the calls for social distancing and the encouragement to telework. Workers are unsure of what will happen to their job if they get sick, or if they feel it is unsafe to go to work.

Workers are looking for a clear path forward during this turbulent time.

Unions working to keep all workers safe 

NUPGE representing 390,000 members across Canada, is recommending these steps to governments to help workers feel more secure.

  • Jobs: The government must provide workers with direct assistance and a wage replacements plan to protect jobs and the economy with fiscal stabilization and stimulus measures. Governments and employers need to ensure that health care workers, and those in high-risk environments have everything they need to stay safe, especially personal protective equipment.  The public needs to feel confident that there will be enough health care workers to keep the system working during this period. 
  • Pensions: The economic downturn is already playing havoc with workers’ pensions. The government must put in place a plan to protect Canadians retirement security.  
  • Sick leave: Workers need access to paid sick time coverage. Hundreds of thousands of workers do not have any paid sick time. In a crisis like the one we’re facing, and the spread of the corona virus, people should feel secure in calling in sick. In addition to wage protection, employers should be job protection for those forced to take sick leave. Employers must stop requesting sick notes. Not only are they ineffective in keeping illness at bay, the clog up the system.
  • Housing: No one should be evicted due non-payment during this time. There must be financial relief on late rents as well.  Governments need to be looking out for the homeless and shelter population, who are at a greater risk of getting sick.
  • Essential services: Heating, water, access to the internet must be protected for everyone.
  • Food and supply plan: There must be a way to ensure that that the most vulnerable in our communities have access to food and supplies. 
  • Community services:  During and following this crisis, funding must be increased for community and mental health services. Instability, stress, and self-isolation will take a toll on people and undoubtably there will be an increased need to ensure there are enough supports in the community to help people recover and move forward in health.This includes ensuring there is increased funding for those fleeing domestic violence. No one should be forced to remain in unsafe environments during this time.
  • Financial assistance: Penalties and interest must be waived for late payments on mortgages, student loans, credit cards, personal loans and rent. The deadline to file income tax must be delayed.

Find out more: COVID-19 

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE