As the threat of COVID-19 continues around the globe, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is asking the province to take action so that all working Albertans can get two weeks of paid sick leave when they need it.
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday as the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus climbed to more than 118,000 in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths.
In a letter Wednesday to Labour Minister Jason Copping, AFL president Gil McGowan is calling on the province to change the Employment Standards Code to allow all working Albertans to take 14 paid sick days every year.
“Your government says it plans to get serious about combating the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta,” McGowan says in the letter.
“I’m writing today, on behalf of the 175,000 working Albertans represented by the Alberta Federation of Labour, to suggest that you can’t really get serious about containing the virus without, at the same time, getting serious about the issue of paid sick days.”
CBC News has asked Copping’s office for comment Wednesday but has not yet received it.
The letter says “gig workers,” independent contractors and workers who may be new to their jobs or to the workforce in general need specific protection.
Speaking to CBC’s Edmonton AM on Wednesday, McGowan said more than half of all Alberta workers don’t have access to paid sick days through their employers.
“In many ways it’s a white-collar, blue-collar divide. If you work in a professional job you tend to have paid sick days from your employer, or you can negotiate them,” he said.
“But if you work in the service sector, if you work in manufacturing, sometimes in construction, especially in the non-unionized work environments, paid leave is either very short or non-existent.”
“One-off paid leave provisions to deal with COVID-19 would be much better than nothing. But the better approach would be to embed paid sick leave provisions in legislation for the long term,” McGowan said.
That would allow sick Albertans to stay home if they are affected by the coronavirus outbreak or by any other health emergency, he said.
In the letter to Copping, McGowan also acknowledges the Employment Standards Code allows for 16 weeks off unpaid in cases where quarantine is required. But it also says that quarantine and the kind of self-isolation being asked for are not the same under the law.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday also talked about the need to ensure workers are protected should they need to self isolate. He announced the creation of a $1-billion COVID-19 response fund. The fund will support provincial health efforts, research and testing.
The one-week waiting period for Employment Insurance will be waived as well.
“No one should have to worry about their job if they have to be quarantined,” Trudeau said. “No employer should have to feel like they have to lay off a worker because of the virus.”
He said the government is prepared to support businesses by improving access to the Business Credit Availability Program.
In his letter to the provincial labour minister, McGowan said the federal measures are welcome but not enough.
Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta expects the federal funding to be allocated on a per-capita basis, which he estimated would mean about $60 million for the province.
“Out initial estimate of the prospective costs to the health system of the coronavirus is in the range of $80 million, so it doesn’t cover that,” Kenney said Wednesday morning in Calgary.
He also said if the spread of the continues to grow the costs could be significantly higher than that.