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Ontario locks down on Boxing Day, but essential workers still work. Without protections like paid sick leave, it just won’t work

Posted: December 24, 2020

(December 23, 2020)

By: Sabina Vohra, Dr. Naheed Dosani, Dr. Seema Marwaha and Semir Bulle

When the province-wide lockdown starts on Boxing Day, Ontario’s essential workers will still be going to work. In truth, they will be going into work so the rest of us can stay home. They need to be protected.

But what is abundantly clear is that what we have done in the past to protect essential workers has not been working — a different approach is needed and should be a priority. Thus far, we have failed to use a health equity lens in our key decision making, policies and treatment of front-line workers. This is a mistake we simply cannot repeat.

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit racialized, precariously-employed and marginalized people the hardest. These are also the communities with high numbers of essential, front-line workers. Here in the Greater Toronto Area, we saw that 83 per cent of cases occurred among racialized communities, which only represent half of Toronto’s population. In Peel, racialized people accounted for 77 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

Ontario data tells us that this higher growth of cases occurs in communities with lower household income, less suitable housing and higher ethnic and racial diversity. These communities are not only the hardest hit with COVID-19, they have poorer health outcomes because of systemic institutionalized racism affecting prevention and care delivery. The impact is twofold.

A ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy and public health approach to curbing the spread in these areas will amplify the current inequities because the needs of racialized communities are distinct and structural. In communities with high numbers of essential workers, for example, stay-at-home orders won’t protect them because if one can’t afford to take a day off for a COVID-19 test or to isolate, the virus spreads regardless of well-intentioned lockdown measures.

So how do we better protect our essential workers? By implementing policies that specifically target better working conditions, access to paid sick leave, moratoriums on evictions and investing in infrastructure to protect workers, like public transit. A response that is anything less than this will fail every single time.

We also need policies that address the actions of employers. A new survey from the Institute for Work and Health shows half of essential workers reported inadequate infection control on the job. More than 7,600 workers have contracted COVID-19 on the job. As per the Ontario Health Coalition December report, workplace outbreaks now far outpace the spread in the general public.

Not surprisingly, the largest increase in cases was in the manufacturing sector, which saw a 77 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases in two weeks. In hard hit areas like Peel, 31 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in the region were attributed to those working in trades, transport, manufacturing and utilities and these numbers are overrepresented compared to their share of the Peel labour workforce.

Amazon fulfilment centres alone have reportedly had nearly 400 cases of COVID-19. However, the Ministry of Labour has issued just one fine to an employer.

Many higher risk jobs employ temporary or seasonal workers and offer low wages. In 2018, Ontario’s workforce included 13 per cent temporary workers and Peel saw a 1.4 per cent increase in temporary employment to a total of 94,500 positions. These workers lack access to safe working conditions and paid sick leave, and there are drastic consequences when one needs to call in sick. We need changes in policy and frankly, we needed these implemented yesterday.

Policies that protect a worker’s right to be sick must be implemented. Paid sick leave provides an opportunity for front-line essential workers to take time off for testing, to isolate and even stay home.

Enforcing occupational health and safety policies must also ramp up. Workplace inspections must occur with greater frequency and a clear, anonymous method to report infractions should be encouraged and employees made aware that there will be no ramifications on them if they report.

Given that many front-line essential workers also experience housing insecurity, direct policies that place a moratorium on evictions will signal to workers that they are allowed to be sick and won’t become homeless as a result.

Ontario is currently sitting on hundreds of thousands of rapid testing kits. These tests must be disseminated to the hardest hit neighbourhoods so that community health workers can administer them. The ongoing development and funding of testing centres, especially in hot spots, should be prioritized. Mobile testing units and walk-in testing centres centred around trauma-informed, culturally-safe care should continue to be supported to make testing accessible for those at highest risk.

Finally, there is a dire need for the development of tailored, culturally safe communications that leverage community organizations and ambassadors and empower the voices of racialized leaders, so people are reached by sources they know and trust.

Our misguided focus on the individual actions of our citizens over the actions of employers and corporations is fuelling the spread of infection. If our governments won’t enforce safe conditions on employers, who else will? The lives of front-line workers will continue to be put at risk as they have been since the start of this pandemic.

This virus has the potential to impact us all equally, but it doesn’t. This is because we don’t live in a society where we are all equal. If we want lockdowns to work, we must acknowledge these inequities exist and protect front-line essential workers now. Lucky for us, the provincial government is currently sitting on $12 billion they can spend to implement these policies. Anything less is simply not enough.

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