Nfld. & Labrador

Forced confinement, missed work: Paycheques among casualties of N.L. blizzard

A week-long state of emergency in the capital means a lot of missed work for people who might be struggling to get by. But even though there's no legal obligation to compensate employees, some businesses are stepping up.

Lost wages mean looming hardship, but some employers are stepping up

Lori Bennett came to St. John's for a medical appointment. She has missed work — without pay — due to legally being unable to leave. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

When Lori Bennett left Corner Brook for a routine monthly trip to the Janeway last week, she didn't realize she'd be surrendering nearly a week's worth of income.

Bennett ended up taking a forced six-day vacation due to Friday's storm and the ensuing state of emergency ordered by the City of St. John's, which legally prevented her from returning home — and from showing up to her shifts at  Greenwood Inn and Suites hotel, an eight-hour drive from the capital across impassable highways.

"I'm being told that because of the state of emergency, I'm not covered," Bennett told CBC on Tuesday. The shifts she missed were given away and she was told she wouldn't be paid for them, she said.

As her household's sole earner, who also cares for her ill partner, money is already tight.

"The financial burden on me right now is very difficult," Bennett said.

"I figured my workplace would have a little bit of sympathy."

Voluntary compensation

Bennett is one of a multitude of workers who've been stuck in hotels and homes on the Avalon, unable to get to work after the city shut down businesses and streets to clean up after last Friday's blizzard.

Some workers contacted by CBC News who weren't being paid for missed shifts did not want to speak publicly, fearing repercussions from their employers.

But a number of workplaces having stepped up, offering compensation to affected employees. 

Colemans Grocery was one of the first to announce its workers didn't have to worry about lighter paycheques.

"We recognize that being off work for several days puts financial hardship on everyone," said Greg Gill, Colemans marketing manager.

The lineup at cash registers at the Sobeys grocery store on Elizabeth Avenue in St. John's was extensive Tuesday, as the city allowed grocers to open their doors for the first time since state of emergency was declared. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Gill said they told retail staff they'd be paid for the period of time the chain remained shuttered during the state of emergency given their "integral" role within the company. "It was a no-brainer," he said.

A number of other businesses were reported on social media to have offered payment to employees. CBC confirmed that Telus, Avalon Mall maintenance staff, and at least one metro-area Starbucks location are offering payment for missed work, despite having no legal obligation to do so.

A number of other businesses are reportedly offering at least partial compensation.

Bennett is frustrated she's not among those employees.

"I've dedicated my work to this place of employment for going on nine years," she said. "And here I am, when I'm in need, just being told 'that's not remunerable.'"

A manager at Greenwood Inn and Suites, when asked about the hotel's policy for workers stranded during a state of emergency, said there was no state of emergency in Corner Brook, adding if any employees were in St. John's then it was on personal time.

The area manager, Lisa Martin, told CBC News the company doesn't have a policy to cover workers who miss shifts due to a state of emergency.

"We've never encountered that situation before," Martin said. She added the legal department is working with the union to figure out "the right thing to do," and set a precedent for future cases.

No legal framework

Mary Shortall, president of the N.L. Federation of Labour, said there are no universal rules that govern how employers should compensate workers during a state of emergency — it's all left, she said, to happenstance.

Overarching federal legislation should probably replace the current legal hodgepodge, Shortall said.

This storm could be a catalyst for that conversation.

Mary Shortall says workers shouldn't be penalized in the event of a disaster, and suggests that a safety net should be built after the impact of Friday's storm is fully realized. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

"Many of the employers are actually paying their workers during this state of emergency," Shortall said. "But for those who don't, there needs to be some way that workers don't pay the price for that."

Shortall said she'd been fielding calls and emails all week from people worried about paying rent and affording food for their kids. "What we've been hearing is … the fear that they just don't know who to turn to," she said.

Some kind of emergency relief fund, with dispensation rules built into labour law, could provide reassurance, she said.

On Thursday, Premier Dwight Ball said the province has been speaking with the federal government about programs, such as employment insurance, to see what can be done about compensating workers for missed time.

And while small businesses have struggled financially in the days following the blizzard, Ball said there need to be discussions about programs that could be set up to help small business owners in the event of another state of emergency.

However, Ball said the focus right now is on the province's low-income earners and people who have lost wages.

"With any review we need to make sure the employers and the employees are part of those amendments or reassess what the appropriate legislation will look like," he said.

"Right now it's very difficult to know what the magnitude of the requirement will be."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go, Meg Roberts, Ashley Fraser and Peter Cowan


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