Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. unions critical of $66M compensation program for COVID-19 essential workers

More than 43,000 workers are expected to be eligible for a one-time payment of between $600 and $1,500.

More than 43,000 workers expected to be eligible for a one-time payment of between $600 to $1,500

Some grocery store employees will be eligible for Newfoundland and Labrador's essential worker compensation program, announced in St. John's on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Two public sector unions are raising concerns about their members not being included in a compensation package for thousands of workers that helped Newfoundland and Labrador get through the pandemic so far.

NAPE and the Registered Nurses Union said most of its members won't see a dollar, despite working in high stress conditions with risks of catching COVID-19.

It's estimated about 43,000 people will be eligible for one-time payments between $600 and $1,500, with about 80 per cent of the funding coming from the federal government.

"We see employees now of large corporations, such as the Loblaws now, going to receive pandemic pay while those that worked in health care, corrections, social workers, will receive no additional compensation for the hours they endured," said NAPE president Jerry Earle.

Jerry Earle is the president of NAPE, the largest public sector union in the province. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

At a press conference on Monday morning, Premier Dwight Ball announced the program as a thanks to people who continued to work even when the fear surrounding the virus was at its highest point.

The province has made it through the pandemic so far with 261 cases and just three fatalities. 

"This is government's recognition for the essential workers," the premier said.

Nurses union president Debbie Forward was less than impressed.

"I knew that when the announcement came that my members would be very disappointed," she said.

Debbie Forward is the head of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Forward said she heard from nurses throughout Monday who were concerned about being ineligible for the additional compensation.

"What's our thank you? The premier kept saying 'It's a thank you. It's a thank you,' during the press conference this morning, and it left even me sitting there and saying 'Well, OK, how are you going to thank frontline and in particular frontline health care workers?'"

The goal of the compensation package is to support the private sector, where many people work for minimum wage or slightly above.

"Many companies are not able to step up, so this is recognition for the essential workers," Ball said. "It could have been someone working in a grocery store. It could be someone providing cleaning services or someone providing home support services. This is recognition of those workers who it was essential that we get them in the work place during the pandemic.

Both Forward and Earle said they would like to see the federal government reconsider the terms of the package, or the provincial government consider adding something extra.

The federal government has determined which workers qualify as essential, which includes health-care, transportation and communications workers, with eligibility criteria available on Public Safety Canada's website.

The federal funding will benefit people who work in places like grocery stores. Union leaders argue the funding wouldn't be necessary if they were paid higher wages. (Submitted by Sobeys Inc.)

Essential employees are eligible for the taxable payment if they worked or will have worked during the 16-week period between March 15 and July 4 and made between $1,000 and $3,000 per month.

Employers must complete the application on behalf of all qualifying employees and provide proof of the employees' eligibility.

Funding for this program includes an estimated $13.8 million from the provincial government and $52.5 million from the federal government. 

Meanwhile, union leaders say the pandemic has exposed which workers have been essential all along, and they are calling for the minimum wage to be increased.

"These employees should have been appropriately compensated before the pandemic, certainly should be compensated during, and again this is going to be in the short term and they won't be properly compensated after the pandemic," Earle said.

Ball wasn't willing to talk about the minimum wage during Monday's announcement.

"That's a different discussion that occurs on a regular basis as we review minimum wage. It's a different discussion than we are having now about the essential workers during the pandemic," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn

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