Lack of paid sick days may have led people to work with COVID-19 symptoms: Dr. Wang

Waterloo region's board of health passed a motion Wednesday night to press higher levels of government for adequate paid sick leave, as the region sees a growing number of workplace outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Region's board of health to press provincial and federal governments for adequate paid sick leave

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang is Waterloo region's medical officer of health. She says there have been an increase in workplace-related COVID-19 outbreaks during the second wave of the pandemic, which highlights the need for paid sick time. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in workplace-related outbreaks at both the regional and provincial level, the region's medical officer of health says.

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang told the board of health that many workers don't have access to paid sick time, which may increase their likelihood of going to work while contagious. 

"The rise in workplace exposures and workplace outbreaks highlights the important need for paid sick time,"  she told regional councillors during a board of health meeting Wednesday evening. Regional council also serves as the region's board of health.

During the meeting, councillors passed a motion to press higher levels of government for adequate paid sick leave, as the region sees a growing number of workplace outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Impact on low-income workers

Low-income workers are often caught between a rock and a hard place as they are more likely to be affected by COVID-19 yet less able to afford the time off they need to self-isolate, Wang said. 

Research suggests that paid sick leave can stop the spread of flu-like illnesses at work, she said. She cited one study that showed the availability of paid sick leave reduced the spread of H1N1 infection in the workplace by 20 per cent.

It is also associated with higher uptake of the flu shot, which Wang said will be important as Ontario rolls out the COVID-19 vaccine. 

According to a presentation that went before the board Wednesday, the workplace categories that have seen the most COVID-19 outbreaks are: 

  1. Manufacturing/industrial.
  2. Food and beverage services.
  3. Sports and fitness.
  4. Food processing. 
  5. Trades and related services.
  6. Construction.

Wang noted it's "extremely rare" to see employee-to-patron transmission in food and beverage workplaces and that most outbreaks tend to involve transmission between co-workers. 

More needs to be done, councillor says

Regional Coun. Sean Strickland supported the motion by the board of health to advocate for adequate paid sick leave but asked whether more could be done on a local level to contain the spread of COVID-19 at work. 

"Sick pay is great but if we can curtail the amount of workplace spread, we won't need as much sick pay," said Strickland. 

He said he plans to bring a motion forward at the next council meeting to call on the province for: 

  • Increased resources for rapid testing in workplaces.
  • Increased workplace enforcement and spot checks by the Ministry of Labour. 

Regional council's next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 12.


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