Thousands of healthcare workers in the Canadian province of Ontario are losing weeks of income when asked to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure, according to the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.
Quarantine is critical to protect patients, other frontline staff and the community, said Michael Hurley, president of the OCHU, in an interview with MedPage Today. However, more than half of the roughly 500,000 healthcare workers in hospitals and long-term care settings in Ontario are part-time or as-needed employees who don’t have paid sick leave.
OCHU — the hospital division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents more than 90,000 healthcare workers in Ontario including about 45,000 in hospitals — is calling on the province’s government to provide paid days for healthcare and other essential workers who contract COVID-19, and time off with pay for those who are required to quarantine following exposure to the virus.
“The reason that we’re calling for paid sick time [is] it’s a discouragement for people to be honest about their physical condition if it means they won’t be able to pay their bills,” Hurley said.
About 15,000 health sector workers in the province have contracted the virus and 15 have died, according to the most recent data from the Ministry of Health. In October, the number of local health sector workers who had contracted the virus was about half of what it is currently.
Frontline healthcare workers need to know that if they contract COVID or get sick from it they will be taken care of, Hurley said. They need to know that they are not expendable.
“That’s not happening,” he said. Low-wage workers — including certain frontline healthcare workers — have been among the most affected by the pandemic, he added.
The union stated that the disparity is evident in the recent departure of the CEO of St. Joseph’s Health System and Niagara Health. Local media reported that the executive vacationed in the Caribbean last month against the advice of public health officials, and that he is now eligible for more than $1 million in payouts upon leaving his position. A spokeswoman for Niagara Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Naheed Dosani, MD, palliative care physician and health justice activist on faculty at the University of Toronto and McMaster University, also noted that essential workers have been hit especially hard.
“I’m one healthcare worker among many other healthcare workers advocating for paid sick leave,” Dosani told MedPage Today. It’s an important policy that could help address some of the underlying disparities, he added.
A significant number of infections are coming from the workplace, he said. People are having to choose between going into work sick and paying their bills, and losing future income.
“These are the very hard realities that essential workers are going through in this pandemic,” Dosani said.
Like OCHU, Dosani said the provincial government should step in to provide paid sick leave for all healthcare and other essential workers.
Harry Godfrey, press secretary for the office of the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, pointed to support options already in place for frontline workers.
“Through the $19 billion Safe Restart Agreement negotiated between the federal and provincial governments, more than $1 billion was dedicated to the funding and implementation of paid sick days — which these nurses should qualify for,” Godfrey said in a statement. “We appreciate the federal government’s work on paid sick leave, which as they note, means workers do not have to choose between going to work and putting food on the table.”
Though more than 110,000 workers have applied for the benefit, only a quarter of the funds for the program have been used, Godfrey added. “Maximizing this program is the best way to support Ontario’s workers and their families, and we know our federal partners are working to raise awareness about the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and get this money into the pockets of Ontario’s workers even faster.”
Hurley said the federal benefit is capped at $500 a week and may not reproduce a worker’s income. He also said that paid sick leave should be convenient to access and available immediately when needed. He said that is not currently the case.