End of Manitoba's COVID-19 restrictions deepens need for paid sick leave, labour federation says

The Manitoba Federation of Labour is worried about what's to come and stressing the need for mandatory paid sick leave on the day before Manitoba lifts its remaining COVID-19 restrictions.

'Gone needs to be the day that … we're working by a co-worker hacking up a lung'

Kevin Rebeck says the Manitoba Federation of Labour has been calling on the province for years to enact mandatory paid sick leave, but 'the response has been crickets — we're not getting any uptake from them.' (Karen Pauls/CBC)

The Manitoba Federation of Labour is worried about what's to come and stressing the need for mandatory paid sick leave on the day before Manitoba lifts its remaining COVID-19 restrictions.

"We've been a relatively healthy, productive workforce throughout this pandemic, because people haven't been sharing their colds and their flus and all the other contagious diseases that are out there," MFL president Kevin Rebeck said.

"I fear that that's going to change and it's going to change rapidly."

Manitoba dropped its proof-of-vaccination mandate on March 1 and on Tuesday it will eliminate the mask mandate as well as the requirement for people who test positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate.

Rather than being required in many situations, vaccination, masking and self-isolation will be strongly recommended, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, has said.

Rebeck said that will impact a large chunk of the province's population.

"It's just not realistic for over half of Manitobans who have no paid sick days whatsoever, who are trying to get by paycheque to paycheque," he said.

The less someone earns, the less likely they are to have paid sick days, Rebeck said. That means the pressure to go to work just to make ends meet is greater, especially as gas and grocery prices surge.

"Sadly, they're going to be in a position where they're going to be coming in sick and getting others ill," Rebeck said.

The labour federation has long called for the province to institute 10 permanent paid sick days for all Manitoba workers, and the casting aside of COVID protections underscores that need, Rebeck said.

"We've got a premier saying part of our new reality is learning to live with COVID. Well, part of learning to live with COVID needs to include paid sick days for all workers," Rebeck said.

"The most affected industries are those same front-line workers that we've been calling heroes throughout the pandemic, yet we're not treating them like that."

Those most affected by the removal of pandemic restrictions are the front-line workers we've been calling heroes, Kevin Rebeck says, 'yet we're not treating them like that.' (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson supports the labour federation's call.

"The importance of maintaining income security when workers have no choice but to work in areas of greater risk of COVID infection is patently reasonable and more than warranted," she said in an email response.

"When workers don't have the option to reduce the risk, and in fact obtain COVID while working in essential areas, it is unacceptable that they should experience any financial hardship due to lost income."

A provincial spokesperson said in an email that it's evaluating options for paid sick leave while analyzing what other jurisdictions are doing.

"Prior to any legislative changes, the province would engage in consultation with labour, business and other relevant stakeholders," the spokesperson said.

Rebeck said there is mandatory paid sick leave for federally regulated employees, but less than 10 per cent of workers in Manitoba fall under federal jurisdiction.

"That leaves 90 per cent of our workforce still not guaranteed paid sick days in law, and that needs to change," he said.

"Gone needs to be the day that sneezy cooks are preparing our food or we're working by a co-worker hacking up a lung. We need to make sure that people stay home when they're sick, that they have some financial stability to do so."

Some smaller employers have argued in the past that they can't afford to offer paid sick leave if their competitors don't do it, so the only solution is to make it a requirement for everyone and for the government to help out, Rebeck said.

He's been calling on the province for years to enact legislation, but "the response has been crickets — we're not getting any uptake from them," he said.

"They're there fast to lift mandates, even though science says otherwise, but not fast to guarantee Manitoba workers have some guarantee … [to do] the right thing to get well and protect others."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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