Working from home not an option for many

Many blue-collar and "gig economy" workers lack the same safety nets as white-collar workers, and may feel pressured into showing up for work when they'd be better off self-isolating.

Blue-collar, 'gig economy' workers under pressure to show up for work while others self-isolate

Srivickneswaran Rasu (left) and Lok-ping Ng (right) will keep on working at Unico Auto Serivce and Body, even though business has slowed as others stay home due to fears over COVID-19. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

As Canada braces for more cases of COVID-19, the federal government says it's planning for a major economic disruption. But some families will likely feel the pain more than others, even with access to expedited employment insurance.

In the National Capital Region, public sector workers are staying home in droves, encouraged by their supervisors to work from home where possible, at full pay. 

But blue-collar and "gig economy" jobs are much less likely to come with paid leave, according to David MacDonald, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa. 

"If you don't have paid leave, you've got to make very hard decisions if you can't go to work or you're in quarantine. What it likely means for a lot of low income workers ... is a big drop in income," MacDonald told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Alexander Koundakjian (left) and Alek Koudakjian Sr. (right) of Aleks Auto Body on Gladstone Ave. They're taking precautions to try and reduce exposure to COVID-19, but if this family business has to close temporarily, their hourly workers will not get paid. (Hallie Cotnam)

While many white-collar jobs can be done remotely, that's less true of blue-collar jobs. 

"For a lot of workers we think, 'Oh yeah, we'll just work from home.' That's just not true for a lot of the working class in Canada. Working-class jobs can't be done remotely for the most part," MacDonald said.

Alexander Koundakjian sanitizes the front door of his family business, Aleks Auto Body Works. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"You can't telecommute to a truck. A lot of working class folks are going to have to go to work if they can. If those jobs are still open, they'll try to go in order to make that money. "

While Ottawa's medical officer of health is encouraging people to stay at home and practise "social distancing," that's not possible for the mechanics at Unico Auto Service & Body on Gladstone Avenue, where owner Lok-Ping Ng said none of his workers has stayed home. 

"It's not so bad yet in Canada," said Lok-Ping, who is following events overseas through friends and family. 

Nearby, it's a similar story at Aleks Auto Body Works, a family-run business for 40 years. Alexander Koundakjian said the business is taking precautions to keep workers safe, including sterilizing door handles and gear shifts, and putting a plastic covering on steering wheels.

Steering wheel cover usually used to protect cars, now being used to protect workers at Aleks Auto Body Shop. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

But Koundakjian said if he's forced to close, or business dries up because too many of his clients are in quarantine, he won't be able to keep paying his employees. 

"If I don't get paid, I can't afford to pay them."

It's a similar story for so-called gig economy workers such as food delivery drivers, who are essentially freelance contractors.

They, too, will have to deal with self-isolation and children who are suddenly off school for three weeks, MacDonald said.

"When it comes to part-time or self-employed people, only one in five could access EI [in 2019]," he said. "So in essence there are almost no supports for part-time or inadequately employed or gig economy workers."

Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s minister of labour, training and skills development, says the provincial government will introduce new legislation meant to protect employees in the case of COVID-19 work interruptions. 0:47

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning