Not even Tim Hortons can keep busy during the coronavirus pandemic.  (Maya Abdallah)

Maggie’s take

Help wanted

To get through this emergency, all food-service workers
need paid leave – not just the sick ones
By Jackson Spring

SINCE WE STARTED to treat the COVID-19 outbreak as an emergency, Canadian public health officials have continuously emphasized three things: wash your hands, don’t touch your face and, most important, distance yourself physically from other people.

Because of that last one, everything has been shutting down pretty quickly over the past two weeks. Public schools and daycares in about half the provinces are closed until further notice, Alberta has banned all gatherings of over 50 people, and the NHL announced it was cancelling all games for the rest of this season. With people being encouraged to stay home as much as possible, it’s common to walk into a typically busy place – like a restaurant at dinnertime – to find it nearly empty.

“I’m almost always there until 10:30 p.m. on Fridays,” says Sarah Doedel, who works as a server at a City Centre sports bar. “Sometimes I don’t get out until 11.

“I was done at 7:30 last (Friday). Barely anyone came in.”

The outbreak’s effects on workers have not gone totally unaddressed – the federal government announced it will be waiving the waiting period for employment insurance, as well as the sick note-requirement to take extended time off and having your job protected.

However, a big part of the discussion has been around ways to mandate that employers provide paid sick leave to employees who don’t usually qualify for it.

Canada is among the mere six per cent of countries that do not have paid-sick-leave policy in place. (Quebec and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces that do.) This means many of the 44 per cent of Canadians who live pay cheque to pay cheque will not likely stay home, even if they are under the weather. And that could expose their co-workers to COVID-19 infection.

Several provinces, such as Alberta, have enacted special sick-leave provisions for people who are showing COVID-19 symptoms and are self-isolating for two weeks, as per the Public Health Agency of Canada’s recommendations. These provisions are mainly job protections – Premier Jason Kenney has so far said the province is still considering its options when it comes to making sure people in isolation still have money to live on.

Providing or mandating paid sick leave would be a sensible policy any time. It is crucial during a pandemic, when you don’t want anyone with symptoms hesitating to stay home. Not providing it only means forcing many people to choose between potentially infecting others and definitely missing your next rent payment.

Regardless, even sick leave would fail to address the full extent to which some sectors of workers are being left out in the cold by COVID-19.

The day the NHL announced it was cancelling the rest of the season, Doedel got an automated email from her employer’s scheduling software, with the innocuous message: “Schedule has been modified. Please review any shift changes.” When she went in the next day, she and the rest of the servers found that each lost at least one shift from the next week’s schedule.

Doedel, says her regular pay cheque and tips “just gets me by.” She is working about half as much as she usually does, and says she expects she’ll only be able to keep up with her bills for a couple of months at this rate.

“I’m even more worried it will get worse. They have already been calling off staff (on the) day-of.”

Doedel was told the bar’s sales had declined 40 per cent since March 9, and that the bar had to start making cutbacks immediately or risk going out of business. Other places, such as the Cactus Club, have taken the more drastic step of shutting down dine-in operations entirely for the time being, and temporarily laying off all their hourly workers. Calle Mexico says that, while they have not had to make cutbacks, sales are down 20 per cent. Restaurants, bars, and cafés across the board are reporting that business has dropped off to some degree – data from Open Table suggests that the number of diners nationwide declined 47 per cent between March 9 and 16.

Food service workers are especially vulnerable to any economic disruption. They obviously can’t work from home. Wages in the sector are already far below the national average (of course, tips make up for some of this disparity). And profit margins in the industry tend to be so thin that just about any reduction in sales means a cut to staff, especially for independent businesses with less capital to keep them going.

Much more needs to be done if they are to make it out of this crisis without falling deeper into poverty.

Improving access to employment insurance is nice, but it will not help those like Doedel who technically have not been laid off, and therefore do not qualify. Besides, it only pays out a portion of one’s regular wage, which doesn’t cover tip money lost, and won’t do much to help the large number of workers in the sector who are highly dependent on their regular paycheques month-to-month. Paid sick leave is nice, too, but does not cover the majority of people missing out on wages – not those who are sick, but those who suffer the indirect consequences.

What can be done is up for debate. Some U.S. politicians have been floating the idea of an emergency universal basic income or a one-time cash payment to all citizens. France and other European countries are finding ways to subsidize businesses, so they can keep sending paycheques to employees at home.

Wednesday, Canada’s federal government announced an emergency income support for those who are affected but do not qualify for employment insurance. It’s still not clear what the qualifications are, or how much it will pay out, but it’s a start.

The hits to food-service workers are likely to get worse over the coming weeks, as measures increase to prevent the spread of the virus. Ontario has ordered the temporary closure of all bars and restaurants, while south of the border, 14 states have done so as well.

These are good decisions. Closing down areas of social gathering is always a priority in preventing contagion. With COVID-19 in particular, the mitigating effect of paid sick leave also applies to workers who aren’t showing symptoms, since much of the virus’s spread has been “driven by individuals with mild, limited, or no symptoms who went undetected,” said Jeffrey Shaman in a public statement. Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, co-authored a study that suggests people who did not show symptoms were the source of at least two-thirds of COVID-19 cases in China.

Everyone needs to stay home, but we need to shut down bars and restaurants without causing people to starve or get kicked out of their apartments.

 

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