Coronavirus: NDP, unions call for Alberta government to address paid sick leave gap amid pandemic

A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. The Canadian Press file

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley is calling on the Alberta government to bring back paid leave for health-care workers who need to miss work in order to self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With cases rising exponentially, Alberta is on track to see thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day in the very near future,” she said on Tuesday.

“We cannot contain the virus and keep our communities safe unless people have the ability to stay home when they’re sick.”

Earlier this year, nurses who were forced to self-isolate because they had COVID-19 or were a close contact of someone with the disease were able to get paid leave to compensate them for their absence. Alberta Health Service stopped that practice in July.

READ MORE: Alberta nurses’ union calls on AHS to bring back paid leave as COVID-19 pandemic continues 

Currently, health-care workers who must self-isolate need to rely on sick days or banked time to financially cover their absences, or rely on the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

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The CRSB offers eligible Canadians $450 after taxes per week if they are sick or need to self-isolate due to COVID-19, or have an underlying health condition that puts them at greater risk of getting COVID-19. The benefit can be claimed for a maximum of two weeks.

READ MORE: New COVID-19 sickness benefit unlikely to go to people ill from virus, PBO predicts

Health Sciences Association of Alberta president Mike Parker echoed Notley’s demand on Tuesday and said he wants Premier Jason Kenney to “get out of the way and let our health-care professionals do their jobs, and give them the support that they need.”

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said he is aware of the concerns being raised by health-care unions and suggested the government is open to considering the idea.

“Our focus is on making sure that AHS has all the resources it needs to make sure that they’re responding to the pandemic,” he said.

“If this is something that we can work with the employees of AHS to do, I leave it for Mr. (Travis) Toews then to work with the unions to be able to figure out.”

On Tuesday, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said he wants to see more sick pay be made available during the pandemic to all workers who need it in Alberta.

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“Premier Kenney and Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw both say that people should be staying home when they’re sick in order to stop spreading the coronavirus. We couldn’t agree more,” he said. “But it’s easier said than done.

“The reality is that… only about 30 to 35 per cent of working Albertans have paid sick leave through their employer.”

McGowan said with cases surging, some people are or will be needing to self-isolate multiple times and that the two weeks of benefits offered by the CRSB is not enough. He noted that Hinshaw said earlier this month she was concerned about the number of people going to work while showing symptoms of COVID-19 in Alberta.

Watch below: (From Nov. 5, 2020) Dr. Deena Hinshaw says she is concerned about the number of people with COVID-19 in Edmonton and Calgary that worked, visited businesses and attended social gatherings while symptomatic. 

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw concerned about number of COVID-19 cases that worked, attended gatherings while symptomatic' Hinshaw concerned about number of COVID-19 cases that worked, attended gatherings while symptomatic
Hinshaw concerned about number of COVID-19 cases that worked, attended gatherings while symptomatic – Nov 5, 2020

McGowan acknowledged Alberta has job protection legislation in place for workers who need to stay home when they’re sick, but said if the government wants people to be financially able to stay home when they’re ill during a pandemic, more needs to be done.

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“If the employers aren’t going to pay to cover the costs that will encourage people to stay home when they’re sick, then the provincial government has to do it,” he said. “The federal government has done their part with what they call the Canada (Recovery) Sickness Benefit but it’s overly bureaucratic… and it only lasts for two weeks.

“Right now, the provincial government has done exactly zero to help working Albertans cover the lost income that they incurred by staying home when they’re sick.”

Global News has reached out to the the premier’s office and the labour minister’s office for a response to McGowan’s comments.

READ MORE: Alberta records 773 cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, 5 deaths 

On Tuesday, Alberta 773 new COVID-19 cases and five new deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. A day earlier, the province recorded 860 new cases of the disease and 20 deaths associated with the illness.

–With files from Global News’ Breanna Karstens-Smith

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