Dozen gather downtown to demand better worker protection

About a dozen people gathered downtown Saturday to demand better protections for retail and hospitality industry workers, including 21 days of paid sick leave.

Anna Gerrard, communications director for the Retail Action Network, said the Covid-19 pandemic has only amplified existing cracks in B.C.’s protections for non-unionized workers in the two industries.

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“People who don’t have job security don’t have those legal protections right now, so they’re not going to choose to take a sick day if they know it’s going to affect their income security,” Gerrard said.

The federal government recently announced funding for a temporary income support program that will provide 10 paid sick days related to COVID-19 as part of the country’s restart plan.

Gerrard said there are few details yet about how the program will work. The network, which supports non-unionized workers in retail and hospitality, is pushing for 21 days of paid sick leave that will last beyond the pandemic and be added into the province’s Employment Standards Act.

“It has to be permanent. That’s really what we’re pressing for today,” she said.

Gerrard said more than half of workers in Canada don’t have access to paid sick leave amid a global health pandemic and messaging from public health officials that anyone with the sniffles must stay home from work to protect others.

Pamela Charron, a server in a downtown Victoria restaurant, said a lack of access to paid sick days means she has to choose between staying home when sick and a day’s pay.

“Calling in sick, you’re kind of scared of being terminated,” she said.

Charron said she would heed public health advice to stay home during the pandemic, but it’s “anxiety-inducing” knowing that means losing income.

Jan Zroback, who works retail in a small drug store, said the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the protection for workers.

“I’m scared that I might be fired if I call in too many times. I might get the can. It’s really demoralizing,” Zroback said.

Premier John Horgan has been pushing for a federal program to provide sick pay for workers who wouldn’t otherwise be covered.

Allowing people to take up to 10 days off work if they are unwell helps meet the guidelines set by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, he said Thursday, following the federal government’s announcement.

"Dr. Henry made it pretty clear to me early on that the biggest challenge we had in the restart was making sure people didn't go to work if they had potential symptoms," Horgan said.

-with a file from the Canadian Press

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