By: Solinne Jung

Up until this point of the pandemic, there has no doubt been a lot of frustration and finger pointing from different stakeholders and even talk of a potential fourth wave. In addition to the many hardships everyone has gone through, the novel coronavirus has taken an extensive toll on essential workers, healthcare workers, small business owners, and low-wage workers who have no choice but to leave their homes. This has sparked a lot of discussion surrounding paid sick days and where the COVID-19 outbreaks are actually taking place.

Early Days

During the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increased focus on restaurants, gyms, and bars. For instance, in September of 2020, Toronto Public Health released news about potential exposures to COVID-19 at Yonge Street Warehouse and Regulars Bar.[1] It was later found on September 26, 2020 that seven people tested positive at Warehouse and that of the seven cases, five were employees.[2] Toronto Public Health also stated that 44% of outbreaks between September 20-26 were in restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.[3] Thy also stated that “socializing in bars and restaurants” was “contributing to significant exposures and outbreaks”.[4]

However, the emphasis of the social aspects of restaurant exposures may be misleading and overlooking the need to focus on ensuring that workers are safe, especially when in the short period of time, 5 out of 7 positive cases were from employees.    

What’s Happening In the Third Wave   

Turning to the present, after Premier Doug Ford announced the stay-at-home order, the focus was on restaurants and small businesses owners who had to close their doors. However, evidence suggests that most outbreaks are coming from warehouses, factories, and construction sites.[5] Out of all the COVID-19 outbreaks from the beginning of the pandemic to March 2021, 378 COVID-19 outbreaks came from “food processing plants, offices, warehouses, shipping and distribution centres, and construction sites”.[6] Meanwhile, bars, restaurants and nightclubs accounted for 51 outbreaks and retail, grocery stores, and malls were responsible for 53 outbreaks.[7] This means that close to 70% of the outbreaks are coming from warehouses, offices, etc., rather than restaurants and retailers.[8] 

Other examples outside Ontario include a meat-packing plant in Alberta that was “deemed the largest single-site COVID-19 outbreak” in North America with 1500 cases.[9] Another example includes an outbreak in South Korea where 94 of 97 positive COVID-19 cases came from an office where people worked on the same floor.[10] 

This all begs the question: why did the Ontario government focus on closing restaurants and hair salons when other pressing issues, such as factory/warehouse workplace outbreaks and the need for paid sick days were looming? 

Unfair realities and the need for change 

Evidence shows that low-paid workers are the most vulnerable and impacted by these COVID-19 outbreaks as they continue to drive the third wave in Ontario.[11] Unfortunately, essential workers face socioeconomic challenges, have a harder time avoiding busy indoor spaces, and find it difficult to have enough distance in their workplaces. Thus, lower-income essential workers are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. [12]  Furthermore, Dr. Isaac Bogoch stated that work environments where “people are clustered in close proximity” are high-risk places for spread.[13] Thus, essential workers in lower-income areas were left without economic support or sick leave benefits who have had little choice but to continue to go to work that may be a high-risk place for spread.    

Calls for action and good news to come 

We’ve seen recently that some companies provide their essential workers vaccinations by organizing COVID-19 vaccine clinics.[14]  After weeks of demanding for change and criticism towards the Ford government, we’ve seen as of April 29, 2021 that Ontario amended the Employment Standards Act, 2000, and added up to 3 days of paid infectious disease emergency leave including Covid-19 related reasons.[15] This is good news as other provincial governments like BC and Manitoba make their own changes to paid sick days and hopefully other provinces will follow as well.[16] Furthermore, the federal government’s CRSB program has been funded by the province so that eligible Ontario residents will receive an additional $500 per week.[17] In total an Ontario resident can receive $1000 per week through the federal program.  

However, with regards to Ontario’s changes in its sick leave policy, Paisley Sim, a policy researcher, stated that with “10 days of isolation” required, 3 days may only be a “stopgap fix for now”.[18] 

Conclusion 

It is imperative that frontline workers in our communities are provided with enough support and sick pay during these uncertain times. It is clear that the data shows these outbreaks are occurring throughout Canada in specific workplaces where workers are in close proximity to one another and decisions should be made to reflect the evidence. Canadians should not be incentivized to continue to go to work even with COVID symptoms because they are left without support or sick pay. Lastly, although 3 days is a positive step, it is far from enough to ensure that all workers are sufficiently supported in order to self-isolate for the required 10 days. To conclude, as said by Dr. Bonnie Henry, “We’re not safe until everybody is protected”.[19] 

[1] City of Toronto. (2020, October 2). Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health recommends the Province take immediate action to stop the further spread of COVID-19. https://www.toronto.ca/news/torontos-medical-officer-of-health-recommends-the-province-take-immediate-action-to-stop-the-further-spread-of-covid-19/ 

[2] City of Toronto. (2020, September 26). COVID-19 Notification for Yonge Street Warehouse (September 10 to September 17). https://www.toronto.ca/news/covid-19-notification-for-yonge-street-warehouse-september-10-to-september-17/ 

[3] City of Toronto. (2020, October 2). Medical Officer of Health Letter: Need for Enhanced Public Health Measures.  https://www.toronto.ca/news/medical-officer-of-health-letter-need-for-enhanced-public-health-measures/ 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Saba, R. (2021, April 6). Warehouses, factories, construction sites responsible for far more workplace outbreaks than retail and restaurants, data shows. Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/business/2021/04/06/warehouses-factories-construction-sites-responsible-for-far-more-workplace-outbreaks-than-retail-and-restaurants-data-shows.html 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid  

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Pelley, L. (2020, May 29). Manufacturing plants, grocery stores, delivery companies all have COVID-19 outbreaks in GTA. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/manufacturing-plants-grocery-stores-delivery-companies-all-have-covid-19-outbreaks-in-gta-1.5588221 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Saba, R. (2021, April 6). Warehouses, factories, construction sites responsible for far more workplace outbreaks than retail and restaurants, data shows. Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/business/2021/04/06/warehouses-factories-construction-sites-responsible-for-far-more-workplace-outbreaks-than-retail-and-restaurants-data-shows.html 

[12] Pelley, L. (2020, May 29). Manufacturing plants, grocery stores, delivery companies all have COVID-19 outbreaks in GTA. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/manufacturing-plants-grocery-stores-delivery-companies-all-have-covid-19-outbreaks-in-gta-1.5588221 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] CBC News: The National. (2021, May 10). Companies bringing COVID-19 vaccines to essential workplaces [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgG5FUKUWOI 

[15] Ontario. (2021, April 28). Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit. https://www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-worker-income-protection-benefit 

[16] CBC News. (2021, April 28). Ontario announces paid sick leave program [Video]. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1891238467974 

[17] Newsroom. (2021, April 28). Ontario to Introduce Paid COVID-19 Leave. Ontario. https://news.ontario.ca/en/release/1000024/ontario-to-introduce-paid-covid-19-leave 

[18] CBC News. (2021, April 28). Ontario announces paid sick leave program [Video]. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1891238467974 

[19] CBC News. (2021, May 10). ‘We’re not safe until everybody is protected’: Henry [Video]. CBC News.  https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1895465027589