Sask. government marks National Day of Mourning amid pandemic, calls for paid sick leave

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Saskatchewan is marking the National Day of Mourning amid a grim year with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 486 Saskatchewan residents.

The National Day of Mourning is observed to pay tribute to people killed, injured or stricken with illness at the workplace.

According to a government press release, there were 34 workplace fatality claims accepted in Saskatchewan in 2020.

Read more: Saskatchewan WCB has received 232 COVID-19 claims from employees since start of pandemic

Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Minister Don Morgan told reporters that there were no claims of workplace deaths related to COVID-19 in 2020. In 2021, however, the Saskatchewan Workers Compensation Board (WCB) has accepted two claims of workplace deaths related to COVID-19 as of April 23. Morgan did not have data on hand on pending claims at the time.

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Morgan said that the death and injury of workers is a tragedy for all Saskatchewan residents.

“The best way we can honour those who have lost their lives from workplace injuries or illness is to take responsibility for health and safety in the workplace to ensure that all workers go home safe at the end of the day,” Morgan said in a press release.

Chairperson of the WCB, Gord Dobrowolsky also offered their condolences to those impacted by the death of a family member, coworker, or friend.

“This is a day for all of us to recommit ourselves to Mission: Zero and to preventing workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses,” Dobrowolsky said.

WorkSafe Saskatchewan, a partnership between The WCB and the provincial Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Ministry, introduced the Fatalities and Serious Injuries Strategy, aimed at lowering the number of injuries.

Read more: Evraz fined $935K in 2 separate 2019 workplace injuries

The four injury priority areas are: asbestos exposure; work-related motor vehicle crashes; firefighter cancer exposure; and falls from heights.

A press release added that the provincial government has also made amendments to regulations which came into force this month, that standardize the workplace requirements for first aid kits.

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“The adoption of several personal protective standards for headwear, eye and face protection, footwear, hearing and personal flotation devices are all part of an effort to make workplaces safer,” the press released read.

Sask. Party pressed on paid sick leave by opposition, labour federation

On Wednesday the provincial government was pressed during question period on implementing paid sick leave for workers by the official opposition.

Official opposition leader, Ryan Meili, brought up the examples of three workers who were potentially exposed to COVID-19 at work.

Matthew Cardinal is recovering from an ICU stay in Regina after contracting a COVID-19 variant. He believes he was exposed to the virus at work as a bartender.

Victor Thunderchild was a teacher and guidance counsellor at Carlton Comprehensive high school in Prince Albert, Sask. He died on April 17 from COVID-19.

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The third worker Meili mentioned is Ali Syed. According to a GoFundMe page, Syed was an employee at the SaskPower Boundary Dam Power Station in Estevan, Sask. He tested positive for COVID-19 in late March and was in the ICU before his death on April 25.

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The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) said that the COVID-19 pandemic has “exposed the lack of protection for workers.”

“Many of whom do not have access to the most basic workplace protections. Evidence shows that the virus is spreading at work, and in Saskatchewan two thirds of all current outbreaks in the province are considered workplace outbreaks- all of which were entirely preventable,” the press release added.

Lori Johb, president of the SFL, is calling on the provincial government to immediately implement permanent sick leave, rapid testing, and ensure workers have access to proper personal protective equipment.

Read more: London, Ont., marks National Day of Mourning following tragic year

Johb is also asking the government to ensure there are “real consequences” in place for any workplace that fail to protect employees or ignore public health guidelines.

In an interview with Global News, Johb said that many workers do not have access to paid sick time.

“When it comes to choosing between a paycheque and going to work, they’re going to work every single time because they simply cannot afford not to,” Johb said.

Johb thinks that paid sick leave would have an immediate impact on slowing rates down.

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“Right now, when we’re in the midst of this third wave, that is just terrifying workers and workplaces,” Johb said.

Morgan told reporters on Wednesday that the provincial government is asking the opposition to join forces with them in lobbying the federal government to pay for employees’ sick leave with COVID-19 funds.

Read more: Ontario’s COVID-19 paid sick leave program to include 3 days for workers

“We’ll continue to work with them on that and make sure that our legislation fits in so we require our employers to give the employees the time off, to hold the job for them, but the funding, it should come from the federal government,” Morgan said.

Johb added that while there is access to different federal benefits, it’s not enough to help workers. She said workers need to be away from work for an extended period of time to access it, which doesn’t apply for workers who wake up feeling unwell and unsure if they should go into work or not.

This is also the case for people who may be suffering from allergies, Johb added.

“We’re taking that chance and we’re going to work only for many people to find out that it was the latter and it was COVID-19 and by this time it’s too late and people are already getting infected and people are getting sick. There’s nothing for workers in that situation,” Johb said.

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A separate press release from the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) added that two-thirds of the current COVID-19 outbreaks in the province are identified as workplace outbreaks. Most of the remainder of outbreaks are in schools and correctional centres where SGEU says workers are also at risk.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fact that so many workers are unacceptably vulnerable — with few protections, low wages, and no paid sick leave to help them weather the storm of a worldwide crisis like this,” an SGEU press release read.

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