·  by USW National Director Ken Neumann   ·  iPolitics

Workers in a Pandemic Need More Than Being Told to ‘Just Stay Home’

This article was originally published in iPolitics on January 26, 2021

“We’re all in this together.” It’s the political slogan of the pandemic. Yes, it sounds nice at first, but the truth is, we’re not all in this equally. Many people, families, and entire communities are being hit much harder by COVID-19 than others.

Of course, most of us can agree that the best way to get through this crisis is for all of us to follow expert medical advice, but that’s a lot easier said by the prime minister at a podium than done by a great many workers across Canada who are often left behind by his government and can’t just choose to “stay home.”

In the 10 months since the federal government’s first major COVID announcement, families have struggled to balance working from home with online learning, front-line workers have isolated themselves from loved ones, essential workers have put up with insufficient protections at work, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs altogether, and the horror we’ve seen play out in long-term care homes screams for attention.

But, in the same 10 months, despite supportive words, the Liberals have been slow to offer, deliver, and extend much-needed supports. From the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Wage Subsidy Program to federal paid sick leave, time and again, even the flawed programs the government has eventually offered have only come because NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his team pushed it to act.

When the first shutdowns began, the Liberal government planned only small changes to employment insurance. But the NDP, which was urging a universal direct payment for everyone, pushed the Liberals to introduce, double, and then extend the CERB. The NDP and the labour movement also pushed the Liberals to increase their proposed wage subsidy from 10 to 75 per cent. And it was the NDP that fought for, and won, increased supports for students, seniors, part-time and gig workers, and people living with disabilities.

Now, as COVID spreads in workplaces ranging from warehouses to health centres, to help flatten the curve, the Liberal government must follow the NDP again. It needs to listen to a growing number of voices across Canada — from workers to medical experts — and expand and extend its program for paid sick leave.

Last spring, while Singh was saying paid sick leave should be made available to all workers — not just those who have good benefits packages — so that no one would have to choose between going to work sick and paying the bills, Trudeau repeatedly dismissed the idea, saying it wasn’t his responsibility.

Months later, in exchange for the NDP’s support on an important vote, the government finally agreed to introduce 10 days of paid sick leave for workers across the country through the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). The program is temporary and limited to COVID, but it’s the first time in Canadian history that a national sick-leave plan has been offered to public- and private-sector workers right across the country. Since then, the government has done too little to make sure people can access the program, or even know it’s there for them to use.    

The prime minister must expand and promote the CRSB and protect those who use it. And he can show leadership by giving all federally regulated workers 10 paid sick days. Then, he could rightly call on the provincial and territorial governments to do the same.

In the fight against COVID, arguments between the federal and provincial governments will get us nowhere. Neither will slogans from politicians, unless they’re backed up with action.

Making sure all workers have the ability to stay home and still pay the bills if they’re sick is a big step in the right direction, and could be a turning point in finally flattening the curve.

Ken Neumann is the national director of the United Steelworkers union in Canada, which represents 225,000 workers across the country.

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