Toronto, Canada – When Carolina Lopez woke up with a sore throat in November, her mind immediately went to the worst-case scenario: COVID-19.
For the Toronto resident, who works two jobs as a restaurant server and cleaner, a COVID-positive diagnosis would not only affect her health – it could mean losing the pay she needs for rent, groceries and transportation.
“Every time you go outside, you are at risk of getting sick and you just can’t afford to get sick,” Lopez told Al Jazeera. “If you get sick and stay home, you’re not going to receive money to pay for your basic needs.”
Lopez ultimately did not have COVID-19 and she recovered from her illness after a few days.
But her fear that a positive COVID-19 diagnosis would spell financial disaster is shared by thousands of essential workers around the world and in Canada, where a surge of infections is pushing healthcare systems in many provinces to the brink.
The second wave has also prompted growing calls for paid sick leave in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, where worker advocates, city officials and public health experts say workers cannot stay home when they are ill, which fuels the spread of the virus.
Ontario on January 22 reported a seven-day average of 2,703 new daily COVID-19 cases – and the province overtook Quebec on Saturday to record the most total infections in the country, at more than 252,000 since the pandemic began.
Amid recent rising cases and hospitalisations, the Ontario government issued an emergency stay-at-home order earlier this month, imposing stricter lockdown measures until at least February 10 across the province.
But Premier Doug Ford did not address the growing demand for paid sick leave for essential workers – fuelling frustrations among workers’ advocates who say such a measure is necessary to stem infections.
Shortly after he was elected in 2018, Ford moved to eliminate emergency leave provisions for workers in Ontario that were introduced by the previous government, including two guaranteed sick days. Currently, Ontario workers can take three unpaid sick days once they have worked for two weeks. The province also passed new rules to allow employees to take “job-protected infectious disease emergency leave” for reasons related to COVID-19 – but that too is unpaid.
There are currently 256 workplace outbreaks in the province, according to most recent data, including 46 in retail and 24 in food processing.
Dr Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, recently recommended Ontario guarantee five permanent paid sick days for workers after three months of employment. That figure, she said, should increase to 10 days during an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
De Villa said in her report that only 42 percent of Canadian workers have access to paid sick days, while that rate drops to around 10 percent for low-wage workers, many of whom have been deemed essential during the pandemic.
Toronto’s board of health also urged the province to take up de Villa’s recommendations on paid sick days, as well as ensure all workers could take protected, paid leave to care for loved ones who are ill.
Joe Cressy, a Toronto city councillor and chair of the board, said: “The truth is, COVID will continue to spread through essential workplaces and our communities unless we guarantee paid sick leave now.”
More than 60% of Toronto’s recorded workplace outbreaks have been in frontline settings. Our essential workers are at increased risk of infection. The truth is, COVID will continue to spread through essential workplaces and our communities unless we guarantee paid sick leave now.
— Joe Cressy (@joe_cressy) January 11, 2021
Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, a group that advocates for better workplace and employment conditions in Ontario, said essential workers are living in a state of constant stress because they have to choose between going to work sick or staying home without pay.
“I think essential workers are very worried and feeling that they’re putting their health on the line every time they go to work because they don’t have paid sick days,” she told Al Jazeera.
In particular, guaranteed paid sick leave would benefit, low-wage front-line workers including taxi drivers, factory workers and cashiers at supermarkets and big-box stores, she said. “They’re precarious, they’re low wage or they’re casual so all these factors combined with the fact that we’re seeing infection rates rise lends itself to a sense of stress and panic.”
In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a programme to provide financial assistance to essential workers that need to take time off due to COVID-19. The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit covers up to 55 percent of an employee’s earnings for a maximum of $595 per week for up to two weeks.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the office of Canada’s Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough, said the measure aims to provide workers with paid sick leave “if it is not a protection provided by their provincial government”.
“We did this so that no worker – regardless of where they live in Canada, or who they work for – has to choose between going to work while impacted by COVID-19 and putting food on the table,” the statement read.
But Ladd said only workers who have COVID-19 symptoms and have lost 50 percent of their work in a one-week period can apply for the programme. Even if they meet those criteria, they typically need to wait two to four weeks to receive the funds, she added.
“And so provincially mandated sick days are critical because they mean that workers will not have their wages disrupted if they’re sick or if they have to take a day off to get a COVID test.”
Harry Godfrey, press secretary for the Ontario Ministry of Labour, told Al Jazeera that while negotiating a COVID-19 economic stimulus plan – the Safe Restart Agreement – with the federal government, it was agreed that Ottawa would provide paid sick leave support.
“We appreciate the federal government’s work on paid sick leave, which as they note, mean workers do not have to choose between going to work and putting food on the table. To date, over 110,000 Ontarians have applied for the paid sick benefit,” Godfrey said in a statement.
Godfrey also noted that the provincial government legislated an amendment to the Employment Standards Act that “ensures that those who stay home to self-isolate or care for a loved one will not be fired”.
Speaking to reporters this month, Ford said instating paid sick days at the provincial level would be doubling up on what the federal government is already providing – and said his government would not be offering paid sick leave subsidies.
But mayors across Ontario, the provincial opposition party, and public health and medical experts, have urged the Ford government to move on paid sick leave quickly as a way to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Dr Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto, said it “boggles” his mind that Ontario has not done so yet.
Meanwhile, he said people of colour are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic in the province and many often cannot self-isolate either, without fear of infecting their loved ones.
“These are often people living in households that are multigenerational in nature,” Sharkawy told Al Jazeera. “When they become sick, they don’t have the luxury of being in their space, using their own bathroom, having their own sleeping quarters, their own room to separate from the other people in their family safely.”
He said the province’s calls for people to stay home are insufficient when it is not addressing the root causes of the virus’s spread. “I’m very disappointed when all I hear is better stay home or do better,” Sharkawy said.
“It’s falling on deaf ears when you’re not changing the systemic issues that are preventing people from doing better and giving them the job security and paid sick leave that will incentivise them and give them some support.”