British Columbia·TREADING WATER

Without sick leave, staying home due to COVID-19 'not an option' for precarious workers, B.C. woman says

A self-employed Vancouver mother says she can't afford to miss work even if she might have symptoms of COVID-19 because she doesn't have paid sick leave.

‘I’d have to be half-dead to not go to work,’ says self-employed mom after official's advice to stay home

B.C. health authorities have warned for weeks that people with symptoms of illness should avoid contact with others and stay home from work. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As British Columbia confirmed its twelfth case of COVID-19 Tuesday, precarious workers in the province worry that they're being asked to choose between their health and putting food on the table.

"I'd have to be half dead to not go to work," says a Vancouver woman who spoke to CBC News under condition of anonymity due to fears she could lose work clients.

The woman, in her 40s, says as a self-employed contractor, she can't afford to miss work.

"I'm always one contract away from an eviction notice." Her job involves daily in-person meetings with companies advising them on their policy.

Health authorities have warned for weeks that people with symptoms of illness should avoid contact with others and stay home from work.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, has said that people and employers need to start thinking about steps they can take in the event of wider transmission of the disease including staying home from work, working from home, or working virtually.

Adrian Dix, Minister of Health, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, announce the number of tests for coronavirus in Vancouver on Jan 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hundreds of thousands without sick leave

With 33 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, that raises concerns for workers without sick leave across various industries like tourism, food service, retail, filming, and construction.

Mark Thompson, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, says hundreds of thousands of workers across the country classify as precarious workers.

"They don't have steady employment," he said. "They may work part time, they may work on call, they don't have a regular source of income from their work." 

The Vancouver woman is a single mother with two dependent children to care for, including one who is developmentally delayed and requires additional support. More than 60 per cent of her income goes toward paying her rent. She says the advice from B.C.'s health authorities is talking to "a different class of people." 

"I don't think people really understand what it means to not be able to miss work," she said. "It's the difference between eating or not, the difference between having a place to live or not."

An empty shelf designated for Lysol wipes are pictured at Superstore in Vancouver March 2, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As someone suffering from a degenerative lung disorder, she is in the category of people with increased risk of severe symptoms and death if she does contract COVID-19.

"I can't focus on that," the woman said about fears of getting sick. "I have to focus on filling my fridge and just hope for the best."

Provincial law doesn't require sick leave from employers

Thompson says the virus is only highlighting the difficult choices precarious workers deal with year round when they get sick or injured.

"People who only get paid when they show up to work … if they stay home they're out of luck."

The B.C. Employment Standards Act doesn't require employers to pay for sick days. They can offer paid sick days as a benefit if they choose.

Thompson says while provincial law does set standards for workers for payment, compensation and working conditions, many employers get around meeting those standards by hiring independent contractors.

"All the laws that cover workers and give them protections in this province are predicated on the worker being an employee," said Thompson. "The companies call them independent contractors and that means they're not employees."

Drivers for companies like Lyft, Uber, and Foodora are hired as independent contractors. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

The self-employed Vancouver woman recognizes that continuing to work in spite of illness could put herself and others at risk, but doesn't see another solution with two dependent children at home.

"It's not my intention to get other people sick. It's not something I would ever want to do but I can't avoid it."

Treading Water is a series from CBC British Columbia examining the impact of the affordability crisis on people in Metro Vancouver and across the province, including the creative solutions being used to make ends meet. To read all of our Treading Water stories, click here. If you have a story for our Treading Water series, please click here and tell us about it.