New Brunswick

N.B. advocacy group calls for improved workers' rights after COVID-19

An advocacy group is calling on the province to improve workers' rights and protections following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Group says essential workers deserve special attention in COVID-19 recovery

New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice is calling for a number of changes to labour legislation to protect workers who are not unionized or earn minimum wage. (Common Front Facebook)

Forty-three-year-old Terri-lyn Ward has been working minimum-wage jobs for over two decades. 

From fast food to restaurant work, call centres and cashier posts, she's done it all. 

"I'm what they call a float girl — I know how to run the whole aspect of the store, so if somebody didn't come in one day or they got short-handed, then I can jump and fill in," Ward said. "That's basically what I do with almost any job I have.

"And, I mean, you still get looked down on and treated like you could be let go tomorrow."

Oromocto resident Terri-lyn Ward has worked in restaurants, call centres, grocery stores and other customer-service related jobs in the past two decades. Ward believes Common Front's recommendations would mean the most to women and mothers working low-income jobs. (Submitted by Terri-lyn Ward)

After being diagnosed with narcolepsy last year, Ward was forced to stop working. 

She said she often just scraped by making minimum wage, barely qualified for overtime pay and was afraid to call in sick for work for fear of losing her job. 

"Something's got to get done, it's got to get done soon," said Ward, a resident of Oromocto.

"It can't be another five to 10 years waiting for statistics and things to come in and whatnot — we need it now."

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Now that she is no longer working, she isn't afraid of speaking out about the difficult working conditions she faced for years. Ward says many don't have the same luxury.

"I can say what I need to — there is nothing that can come back to me to ruin anything."

Post-pandemic working conditions

The New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice is calling on the province to improve rights and protections for people like Ward.

The group recently released seven recommendations for the province, including an increase to a $15/hr minimum wage, 10 paid sick days per year and more accessible vacation pay. 

About 20,000 people, or six per cent of the New Brunswick workforce, are paid the minimum wage, which currently stands at $11.75/hr, the lowest of all Atlantic Canada provinces. The provincial minimum wage, which is tied to the consumer price index, is higher than only one province in the country, Saskatchewan, which is set to raise its minimum wage to $11.81 in October. 

"We've had a lot of conversations about the importance of essential workers during this pandemic," said Abram Lutes, Common Front provincial coordinator. "If we're going to have an equitable recovery, they should be front and centre."

Abram Lutes believes Common Front’s recommendations for change are needed now more than ever as the province moves out of the pandemic. (Submitted by Abram Lutes)

Other recommendations call for equity, stricter regulations around overtime pay, uniform compensation and better job security. 

These policies are mainly targeted toward amending the Employment Standards Act, of ESA, which Lutes said is the main legislation that dictates standards and protections for low-wage and non-unionized workers in the province.

"If you have a union, usually your union negotiates more benefits and more protections under a collective agreement, but if you don't have a union, the ESA is what rules at work," said Lutes, who says restaurant, gas station and even some long-term care workers fall into this category.

"Contrary to a lot of assumptions, not all of them are teenagers looking for part-time jobs."

Lutes says these policies would especially help women in the workforce, who are more likely to work low-income jobs or leave the labour market completely due to personal and family responsibilities.

Furthering the conversation

Lutes said this initiative has support from the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees, Coalition for Pay Equity, NB Federation of Labour and CUPE New Brunswick, among other non-profit and advocacy groups across the province. 

Common Front met with MLAs to discuss these recommendations last month. Lutes said Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau for Kent North is one of their biggest supporters.

"It's just issues that are very close to me, close to my constituents," said Arseneau to the CBC. "I represent, I think, the poorest riding in the province in terms of median income, [with] lots of shop workers, lots of manufacturer workers. It's natural for me to embrace those kinds of issues."

He said now those issues need to be kept in the forefront.

"The easy answer would [be] if we want to get these implemented, we need a change of government," said Arseneau. "We're definitely there, wanting to push those kinds of issues."

"But inside the legislature, it's always a game of putting pressure at the right time at the right place and getting the issues in the public eye."

In a written response to CBC News, the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour said it has reached out to the Common Front For Social Justice "in the interest of discussing the issues that have been brought forward."

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