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COVID-19: You’ve been asked to self-isolate. Now how do you pay the bills?

Concern over sick leave while under COVID-19 quarantine
A Metro Vancouver woman under quarantine after possibly being exposed to a COVID-19 patient says she's been left without support and fears her time off work will use up her vacation and sick days.

With concern growing about the possibility of COVID-19 becoming a genuine pandemic, what are the options available to people who’ve been forced into isolation at home?

That’s the question one B.C. woman, who Global News has agreed not to identify for privacy reasons, is asking after finding herself trapped at home after coming into contact with a coronavirus patient.

The woman was at Ridge Meadows hospital earlier this month when the contact happened. Days later, she was contacted by public health officials.

READ MORE: COVID-19: B.C. hopeful virus can be contained, but preparing for possible pandemic

“I was in the vicinity at the same time this person was there, so they were essentially back calling, they were retracing everybody’s comings and goings … that afternoon,” she told Global News.

That activated the province’s self-isolation protocol, and the woman says she’s been asked to remain at home until early March.

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“So that means not going to work and not going into the community at all. They call me every day to check my temperature and check if I have symptoms, and that’s it,” she said.

But days or weeks away from work can be costly.

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The woman told Global News she spoke with her employer, her union and even WorkSafeBC.

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She says she was told her options are to use sick days and vacation time.

“That’s going to take time away from my family this year, I’ve worked for that time to be saved up to be used at my choice, and I don’t really feel like I should have to use sick and vacation time — I’m doing neither of those things,” she said.

B.C. employment lawyer Sara Forte says it’s a rare situation, one last seen during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

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“In British Columbia, there is actually no legal requirement for employers to provide paid sick time,” Forte told Global News.

She said the situation will likely require flexibility on the part of government, employers and workers.

That could mean dipping into flex time, lieu time or vacation time, or trying to find a way to work remotely from home.

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She said the province could also look at what the government did during SARS — creating a special waiver for the employment insurance waiting period.

Under current regulations, an applicant must wait a week from the point they are unable to work before they can apply for EI.

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“What they did is they made an exception where if you were quarantined, that waiting period was waived and you could access EI benefits immediately,” said Forte.

“What we don’t want is employees coming to work feeling pressured or desperate financially when they’re symptomatic.”

Asked about concerns Tuesday, B.C. health officials said the issue has yet to become a major problem.

“There is processes in place that we have to support people,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“There’s a number of people whose workplaces have allowed them to work from home when they’ve been in isolation,” she added.

READ MORE: ‘Time is everything’: How the world is preparing for a widespread COVID-19 outbreak

But with B.C. gearing up for the possibility that wider transmission of COVID-19 could reach Canadian shores, concern about how some workers will support themselves is top of mind for the B.C. woman Global News spoke with.

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“Many people don’t have that luxury (of sick or vacation pay),” she said.

“[They] may have to take the time off and lose their job or actually just make the choice to go to work — especially if they’re showing no symptoms.”

With files from Aaron McArthur