April 28 Day of Mourning

Criminal Failure to Guarantee the Livelihoods of Workers Exposed or Infected at Work

Tens of thousands of workers in Canada and Quebec have contracted COVID-19 at their workplaces. More than 600 workers at the Amazon distribution centre in Peel Region, over 200 at the Gateway Postal Facility in Mississauga, and almost 1,000 workers at the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alberta have tested positive for COVID-19. There are currently outbreaks at 12 oilsands sites or camps in or near Ft. McMurray, with 738 active cases as of April 26. These are just four examples of hundreds of such outbreaks.

Workplace outbreak statistics do not include health care settings where outbreaks affect both workers and patients or residents of long-term care homes and other congregate living settings so do not properly reflect the number of workers infected at work.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, there are increasing demands from health care professionals that vaccinations should be prioritized for workers who cannot work from home and whose workplaces have remained operational, starting with those most affected. One of the reasons that governments have not made such decisions is that to do so would be to acknowledge that the government, which is in charge of vaccine delivery, has a responsibility to keep workers safe at work and to enforce laws and regulations that employers must follow to keep workplaces safe. It would mean deeds that match the fine words, "We've got your backs. Oh thank you, thank you essential workers" that are sounding more like mocking every day.

Adding insult to injury, there are widespread reports of workers being told by their employers not to file compensation claims but to instead apply for the federal government's Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), as well as of large numbers of compensation claims being denied. The rate of acceptance of COVID-19 claims varies from province to province, with a high of 95 per cent in Quebec and a low of 60 per cent in Manitoba. Many workers report that claims are ended if a worker who has had COVID-19 tests negative, even if they are still sick and their doctor verifies that they are ill and unable to work.

The Globe and Mail reported on April 13 that as of March 5, 2021 there had been more than 20,100 claims related to COVID-19 filed with Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and that health services and long-term care accounted for 58 per cent, with agriculture, food processing, manufacturing and retail workers accounting for 25 per cent.[1] Data from Public Health Ontario reports nearly 1,900 outbreaks at workplaces in Ontario from March 2020 to March 5, 2021. These numbers of claims and exposure incident reports, according to union representatives, are far lower than the actual figures.

David Chezzi, a national representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Chair of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc. was quoted in the Globe and Mail article as saying, "... Considering that workplaces accounted for as much as one-third of all outbreaks during the second wave in Ontario, the number of claims and exposure reports submitted to the WSIB should be much higher." For example, there have been over 900 cases at Amazon warehouses but not a single exposure incident report has been filed to the WSIB for Amazon. The Globe and Mail reports that as of April 12, according to WSIB data, there were fewer than five allowed claims and fewer than five rejected claims from Amazon workers. No penalties have been assessed for Amazon and other employers who fail to meet their legal obligations to ensure that claims and exposure reports are filed.

According to Chezzi, "Tens to hundreds of thousands should have filed exposure claims. Why? Because it's potential exposure. You've got hundreds of employees in any given facility. Exposure rates should be through the roof, because anyone going to work where there is COVID, you have been exposed. If a student or co-worker goes to school with COVID, teachers have been exposed. Now multiply that by all the schools in the province. Think of all the paramedics, frontline nursing staff, custodians, grocery store clerks and people working in non-unionized environments."

British Columbia is the only province to have legislated presumptive coverage for COVID-19 which means that workers who contract COVID-19 are presumed to have contracted it on the job if they work in an essential industry or work in an environment which puts them at risk. In other provinces workers may have to prove that they were infected at work. Even with this, Worksafe BC reports that claims are disallowed where the person was exposed or required to isolate but ultimately tested negative, and the rate of rejection is close to 30 per cent.

The anti-social nature of the so-called compensation regimes are on full display in the situation where every day corners are cut on safety measures so that production rates don't suffer. With COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of workers are working in potentially life-threatening situations and employers are playing 'hot potato' with their lives. Workers are directed to apply for federal emergency sick benefits or CERB when they should be covered by compensation which in most cases would mean no interruption in earnings. It's a back-handed scheme to pay the rich through government payouts to workers that should come from employers. The federal and provincial governments are fully complicit in these schemes.

A modern human-centred society would recognize that all workers have the right to a livelihood and in emergency situations like the pandemic what is needed is a guarantee of workers' income when they are sick or forced to isolate or their workplace is shut down. No one should be left to fend for themselves.


1. COVID-19 related claims statistics from WSIB as of April 16, 2021 showed 21,133 claims allowed (including 46 deaths up to March 31, 2021), 2,007 claims not allowed, 259 claims pending and 6,700 exposure incident reports received.

(Photos: WF, Power of Many, ONIWG)

This article was published in

April 28, 2021 - No. 35

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