An Open Letter to Premier Stephen McNeil: Halt spread of COVID-era injustice and give workers 10 paid sick days

Published by the Chronicle Herald.

An Open Letter to Premier Stephen McNeil:

COVID-19 has exposed many inequities in our communities.

One of these is the privilege that some workers have had in their ability to remain at home unexposed to the virus. Meanwhile, others —  many of them low- and minimum-wage workers — have had to go to work every day and shoulder the risk of being exposed to the virus. Grocery store workers, cleaners, and restaurant workers have been essential during this pandemic. You have even called them heroes. But when it comes to their working conditions, they have too often been treated as expendable.

Another inequity that has been exposed over the past few months is the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racialized workers and their communities. A recent analysis published by Vice found that people of colour make up half of the COVID-19 cases among staff at the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax, while they represent only a quarter of the workforce.

As Nova Scotia reopens, many of these inequities are solidifying into a new and terrifying reality — especially when it comes to the lack of access to paid sick days. Nova Scotia’s Labour Standards currently provide employees with the right to take just three unpaid sick days per year. This is the lowest number in any province that mandates sick leave.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, announced to the media on May 12 that we now live in a “new normal,” in which it is no longer acceptable for Canadians to come into work when they are sick. Public health officials are constantly telling us to stay home if we are sick — but without paid sick leave, too many workers can’t afford to.

What we need is a just recovery from COVID.

The Fight for $15 and Fairness movement in Halifax calls on the provincial government to immediately grant all workers in Nova Scotia 10 days of paid sick leave per year. We add our name to the growing list of groups, including Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and the Workers’ Action Centre, calling on the government to act now.

Another thing that this pandemic has taught us is that change is possible and that it can happen fast.

Workers, whose labour has been critical during this pandemic, shouldn’t be put in this position of having to choose between following public health guidelines to keep everyone safe and earning an income to keep their families securely housed and fed. When people go to work sick, they risk getting both their co-workers and the public sick. Increased illness also puts unnecessary strain on workplaces and on our health-care system.

“Nobody should have to choose between taking a day off work due to illness or being able to pay their bills. Just like nobody should have to choose between staying home with COVID-19 symptoms or being able to afford rent or groceries,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on May 25, during his daily press conference.

Our provincial government must recognize the harm this tradeoff is causing workers, small businesses, our health-care system and the public at large. It must also recognize that there is no end to the pandemic without paid sick days.

We call on you, as premier, to do the right thing. Nova Scotia needs to immediately bring in 10 paid sick days for every worker.

Erin Sirett lives in Halifax. She writes on behalf of the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement in Nova Scotia.

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