We hear all the time about the struggles of essential workers in the pandemic, but do we truly appreciate how hard it is for the people who have not had the choice to work at home, and have had to sometimes suffer the dire consequences? Labour groups are hoping you take a minute to think about that on Wednesday when the National Day of Mourning for workers injured and killed on the job tackles the “Human Cost of COVID-19.”
“For over a year, the world has faced unprecedented upheaval due to COVID-19. The virus and its variants have wrought havoc on our society and laid bare a troubling lack of protection for workers,” said Jennifer Hesch, President of the Guelph & District Labour Council. “We owe it to the workers we’ve lost in the past year to do everything we can to protect those who are still on the frontlines in this crisis. As hard as the last year has been, we have to continue following public health guidelines and fighting for health and safety protections for workers.”
Sarah Neath is the co-chair of this year’s local Day of Morning commemoration, and she’s also the Workers Compensation Representative for United Food and Commercial Workers union locals 175 and 633. The workers she represents staff local retirement homes, grocery stores, and meat processing plants, so Neath said that this year’s theme is “pointed” because the workers she talks to are seeing the impacts of COVID every day.
“Sometimes people forget that COVID is actually an occupational disease,” Neath explained. “Employers have attempted to do everything in their power to make places safe, and while some are doing a better job than others, we know that people are going to get sick.”
Neath’s regular job with the union is to help people secure workers compensation when they’ve initially been turned down by the Workers Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB). She doesn’t hear about successful claims, but the ones she is hearing about often involve workers that are feeling the long-term effects of their COVID infection, but are expected to be back at work and going 100 per cent as soon as their 14 days of quarantine are up.
“Once you are negative for COVID, they automatically say, ‘Fine, you’re cured, go back,'” Neath explained. “But after 14 days, some people still have symptoms, it could just be a runny nose, or it could be a cough, and now they’re not technically eligible to go anywhere, but they’re still expected to come to work.”
According to Neath, 85 per cent of the workers she represents are considered “essential”, so there is no end to the issues that she’s facing on a daily basis, and they are as diverse as the work that her members do. The amount of available PPE is a priority, but so is advocating for universal paid sick days, and making sure that workplaces are following all COVID protection measures.
“I’ve noticed that the Ministry of Labour has increased the number of inspectors, but there’s no accountability,” Neath said. “They’re issuing orders, but then there’s no follow through, and there’s no incentive for an employer to follow through on the orders, aand at the end of the day, the Ministry of Labor’s flat out said they will not accept COVID as a reason to refuse work.”
Last summer, it was reported that the between March and June 2020, the Ministry of Labour denied 277 of 278 claims to refuse work based on concerns about the dangers of COVID-19. This even though the Government of Canada affirms on the COVID-19 section on their website that employees have the “right to refuse to do a job if there is reasonable cause to believe that the job presents a danger to themselves or another employee” under the Canadian Labour Code.
The dangers to workers continue though because the same reason that they can’t take time off to get sick is the same reason why they can’t take time off to get vaccinated: they can’t afford to lose the pay.
“Workers will automatically make the decision to work so they can get paid, so by offering them the pay to go get vaccinated, you’re giving them the incentive to do it,” Neath said, adding that a lot of vaccine clinics are only open during regular business hours. “Prevention will always be the key even though here’s never enough prevention.”
Once again, Guelph’s Day of Mourning will be a virtual one instead of the usual in-person commemoration at Goldie Mill Park. This year’s speakers will include a special education teacher, someone that works in local healthcare, and one of Neath’s colleagues from one a local Cargill meat processing plant. The goal, according to Neath, is to make people understand the full extent of the stresses being felt by frontline workers.
“I think the takeaway is really throwing it in people’s faces that this is what’s truly, truly happening on the frontlines, and I want them to hear it firsthand. I don’t want you to hear it from me, through a union, an employer or even through the media, I want you to hear it from them,” Neath said.
The National Day of Mourning observance is Wednesday April 28 at 5 pm, and you can find the details on the Guelph & District Labour Council’s Facebook page.