Missing Work?

So you have to stay home from work.

What that will look like for you, financially, depends on a number of factors.

As I write this, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just announced a whopping $82 billion aid package — $27 billion in emergency aid and $55 billion in tax deferrals — which will, at least temporarily, ease the burden for many Canadians.

Earlier in the week, Trudeau announced the government was waiving the one-week waiting period for EI sickness benefits for people who must be quarantined for 14 days due to COVID-19 and who have no or limited paid-leave benefits from their employers. (It has established a dedicated toll-free number for people in quarantine wanting to waive the one-week period for sickness benefits: 1-833-381-2725).

It has also promised $12 million for EI’s work-sharing program, “an adjustment program designed to help employers and employees avoid layoffs when there is a temporary reduction in the normal level of business activity that is beyond the control of the employer.”

But as David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, pointed out in a recent report, EI is “difficult for most unemployed people to access.” Macdonald says only 33% of unemployed women and 38% of unemployed men received EI benefits in 2018.

The COVID-19 changes to the EI system announced in March will speed up access to sickness benefits but they won’t change who qualifies for EI in the first place.

Also (and this is my two cents’ worth), EI sick benefits currently provide 55% of your earnings to a maximum of $573 a week. Even if you do qualify, if you were barely getting by to begin with, how do you survive on half of your previous income?

But Wednesday’s announcement plugged some of these gaps, as the Globe and Mail reported:

The Prime Minister told a news conference that Ottawa is taking direct action to help Canadians who don’t qualify for employment insurance or don’t have access to paid sick leave.

“Our government will introduce the emergency care benefit which will provide money every two weeks to workers who have to stay home,” he said. “People will receive this benefit for 14 weeks for an amount comparable to the amount that would be paid through EI.”

The new benefit will apply to Canadians who fall ill and have to self-isolate, he said.

Ottawa is also creating an emergency support benefit for self-employed and part-time workers who do not qualify for EI.

Small-business owners will receive a temporary wage subsidy from Ottawa that will be equal to 10 per cent of salary paid to employees for a period of three months.

The deadline for tax filings has been delayed to June 1 and those who have filed already and owe money will not have to pay until after August 31.

The Canada Child Benefit will be temporarily boosted and the GST credit will be raised to $300 per person and $150 for every child.

For people paying off student loans, the government will put in place a six-month moratorium on repayment of their loans.

“For people experiencing homelessness we are doubling the Reaching Home Program that provides funding for communities to address their local needs,” he said. A separate fund is being set up to help Indigenous communities.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says this is just the “first phase” of the government’s response.

Okay, that’s the up-to-the-minute news — something the Spectator doesn’t deal with much as a weekly publication — now back to my regularly scheduled article.


Call me

The measures announced this morning in Ottawa are largely intended for people who have lost their work due to the pandemic, but some companies are making arrangements for their employees to work from home. Todd Riley at the Sydney Call Centre, for example, told me on Monday in an email:

Right now we are working to get 50 percent of our agents working from home. We have extra cleaners working around the clock wiping and cleaning pcs, break rooms and wash rooms etc. I will have more updates throughout the day.

He didn’t have more updates throughout the day so I am not sure if the call center (which, with shared equipment, shared bathroom and break facilities and workers in close proximity to one another has got to be ripe for virus transmission) has succeeded in sending 50% of its workers home.

I also asked Riley (twice, in fact) whether call center workers who had to self-isolate were entitled to sick leave but he ignored the question.

(If you work at the call center and can answer this question, please get at me by email or DM me on Twitter @MaryPCampbell I will not quote you.)

For what it’s worth, the call center’s owner, US businessman Anthony Marlowe, thinks President Donald Trump (who is now saying he knew all along COVID-19 would become a pandemic) is doing a fine job of handling the crisis in that country, taking bold steps such as this:


As for Concentrix, the company that operates the call center in Glace Bay, I tried to get answers about its COVID-19 policies after I saw a Tweet from the company’s account advising its clients how to “address the #customerexperience impacts of today’s challenging environment”:

I asked again about sick leave and Concentrix, mistaking me for a disgruntled employee, replied:

First, I am guessing this means Concentrix does not offer paid sick leave.

Second, “People Solutions” sounds like the name of the HR Department in a Terry Gilliam movie.


Paid leave

I’m picking on the call centers because they’ve been on the receiving end of so much government assistance over the years they make an easy target, but the fact is, many employers in Canada do not offer paid sick leave, as that CCPA report I cited earlier makes clear. Its author, CCPA senior economist David Macdonald, notes:

The provision of paid employer leave can take several forms including sick leave or vacation days. The latter should obviously be used for actual vacation, not in lieu of missing paid sick days. However, many workers don’t or won’t have a choice but to dip into their vacation time in the event they are forced to stay home for two weeks or more.

That’s because only 38% of illness or disability leave and 23% of family responsibility leave was paid by employers in 2019, compared to 72% of va­cation leave. Whether it is appropriate or not, quarantined workers are most likely going to use their vacation days to cover their involuntary time off.

Ironically, the more money you make, the more likely you are to receive paid leave:



Unpaid leave

Nova Scotia’s Labour Standards Code entitles employees to “up to three days, unpaid sick leave each year,” and every part of that is problematic: taking three days off without pay is not an option for many who live paycheck to paycheck and three days is not enough time to recover from many illnesses — the common cold lasts for about five to seven days, during which time the patient remains contagious.

Nova Scotia also allows for unpaid emergency leaves for a number of reasons, including cases where:

A medical officer of health issues a directive or order applying to an individual or a group, for example directing an employee to stay home because they have a contagious disease…

The leave is also available to employees who:

…cannot work because they need to provide care or assistance to a family member affected by the emergency, if the employee is the only person available to provide care and support in the circumstances.

The province is currently requiring anyone who has traveled outside Canada to self-isolate for 14 days upon return, even if they are symptom free. Presumably, such people would be entitled to emergency leave (I asked the Department of Labour and Advanced Education if this was the case, but as of press time, it had not responded.)

Employees who take emergency leave must be accepted back “into the same position or a comparable one with no loss of seniority or benefits” when the emergency ends. The legislation also, generously, provides that:

During an emergency leave, employers must let an employee keep up at their own expense any benefits plans, if the employee chooses to do so.

Basically, emergency leave means you can’t be fired or demoted while you’re off but neither your employer (nor the province) has any responsibility to help you afford the necessities of life while you are off work with no source of income. The province notes that Employment Insurance (EI) benefits “may” be available for some on leave.

And while travelers are required to self isolate, workers who are sick are simply “advised” to stay at home and their employers asked to “support” them by “talking” to them about:

…flexible hours or alternative work arrangements if they need to stay home. Don’t ask them for doctors’ notes if they get sick or need to self-isolate.

Meaning, if I’m reading this correctly, that emergency leave wouldn’t apply.



That CCPA report tackles that question of working from home, pointing out that for many people, it is simply not an option:

Much has been made of the possibility of working from home while in a quarantine situation. That’s fine for a lot of so-called knowledge workers who can teleconference as needed. However, most of Canada’s lower- and lower middle- income workers are in professions where this simply isn’t an option.

For example, in the five lower-to-middle-income professions where women are most likely to be employed — caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning — only one type of job (clerical work) could potentially be done from home. The other four are by definition in-person jobs, and workers in three of these professions — caring (in health care, child care and long-term care), catering (food preparation) and cleaning — will be on the frontlines of combatting the virus.

Macdonald doesn’t go into it, but as I wrote elsewhere this week, researchers have identified being “low-income” as a risk factor that could make COVID-19 more dangerous — so people for whom the virus presents a more serious risk are precisely those who must work, even on the “frontlines of combatting the virus.”

The largest occupational group  in which men account for the majority of workers, says Macdonald, is made up of “the building trades, transport (truck driving) and equipment operators and related occupations.”

These workers won’t be on the frontlines of combatting the coronavirus, but their jobs are impossible to do from home. We can’t telecommute to the cab of a truck or wire a breaker box from our computer (at least not yet).

Basically, Macdonald concludes that paid leave and working from home “aren’t realistic options for most workers.”

Without better government interventions, many workers will see sudden drops in income, particularly in a quarantine situation.



Selective myopia

It’s gob-smacking, really, what we’ve come to accept as reasonable in our society: the lucky ones are entitled to 55% of a salary they were barely making ends meet on to begin with.

And this outpouring of funding to dampen the worst effects of the pandemic is, of course, welcome and necessary but lots of people lost their jobs and had no recourse to EI before the pandemic and lots will lose their jobs and have no recourse to EI after the pandemic has past. The pandemic is just making the reality facing many Canadians starkly visible.

I’ve seen the first post promising a business will make a big donation to a charity to help people through this and my immediate thought was: enough with the charity.

It’s time to admit we can’t end poverty or work precarity or income inequality with charity. I was actually planning to write this week about the local United Way’s spectacularly unsuccessful campaign to reduce child poverty on this island by 5% over five years. The five years are up and the poverty rate is higher — the United Way announced its grand crusade after a report put child poverty on the island at 33%; the most recent figures, announced this January by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), show that childhood poverty in Cape Breton has increased to 34.9%, the highest in the province.

And five years later, Lynne McCarron, director of the United Way Cape Breton is still saying that the problem is that the people with money on this island — the ones who can pay $225 for a ticket to or $2,200 for a table at the organization’s annual “gala” — still don’t realize there are people here living in poverty. Here she is in 2015 explaining this selective myopia to the Post:

“When you think of where these people are travelling in their circles, then they’re not seeing it (poverty),” says McCarron, executive director of United Way Cape Breton. “You’re not seeing it when you take your kids to the hockey rink – those kids aren’t playing hockey because it’s too expensive – you’re not seeing it at the golf course – so if it’s not brought to their attention, then it’s not recognized as being a problem. So recognizing it as being a problem is part of the solution to that problem.”

And here she is in 2020, after telling the Post she was not yet sure whether or not they’d met their 5% reduction in poverty goal because she was still “compiling statistics”:

“The circles you travel with you wouldn’t be aware,” McCarron said of the lack of awareness.

“It’s not in your face unless you go looking for it. Basically, (Cape Breton Regional Municipality) doesn’t have an obvious homeless issue. You wouldn’t see it on the streets as much, we have a lot of couch surfers.”

Let’s take her at her word, that the problem with this “charity” approach to ending poverty is that the wealthy just aren’t aware of the problem and then — let’s drop the charity approach.

As CCPA director Christine Saulnier wrote in the introduction to (yet another) recent report, “Creating the future we all deserve: A social policy framework for Nova Scotia“:

If we are, for example, committed to reduce, and indeed eliminate poverty, then we must develop social policies that will address income and wealth inequality.

In a subsequent op-ed in the Chronicle Herald, she drew a direct connection between this goal and the current COVID-19 crisis:

Consider the coronavirus (COVID-19): while no one is immune, some are less able to protect themselves and recover, including from the economic effects of decisions to contain the spread. Consider who is able to take paid time off work or ensure they have necessary supplies.

The short term answer, obviously, is temporary government assistance.

But COVID-19 has laid bare flaws in our society so obvious, I’m guessing even the people “on the golf course” may be forced to notice them.