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Danny Cavanagh: Protecting all workers during the pandemic and beyond

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour (NSFL) represents 65,000 unionized members and their families in every single community in our province, and in every sector of our economy. We are a voice for all workers and through our collective work, we advocate for a more fair and equal world for all. Our work in times like these becomes a bit more challenging on many fronts. 

These are unprecedented times. During this pandemic, we have a real opportunity to collaborate in many ways to ensure Nova Scotians are supported and protected. This is first and foremost a health crisis, but we will also be left with an economic crisis.

Now is the time for balancing workers’ concerns and fears with the reality of challenges in workplaces. The concerns that workers have are real and must be addressed in a meaningful way. We must ensure that no worker gets left behind in this crisis. Working people whose incomes vanished because of the pandemic must be protected.

When this all started, just ten days ago, we were pleased to hear Prime Minister Trudeau’s emergency economic response that emphasized the importance of  protecting workers, so they could provide for themselves and their families.

Despite that hopeful message, today we are hearing a different message – one that ensures financial support for small and medium businesses. Government understands that businesses and workers need a bridge, one that inserts money into the economy from the ground up, to ensure workers stay home when they’re sick and help boost the economy. 

What is missing is how that money to companies will help workers. We want to hear that government will put strict rules in place for access to those funds; rules that keep employees on the payrolls of those businesses, whether or not they are working.

Nova Scotians want to know their governments will support them, especially in hard times. The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour is asking Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier McNeil to do that by immediately implementing the following measures:

  • Clearly put conditions on employers receiving government relief to ensure employees do not experience loss of income and stay on the payroll.
  • Protect all workers by amending labour laws to provide 7 paid sick days, with an additional 14 paid days for emergencies such as we are seeing with COVID-19.
  • Ensure that when workers who have to leave their jobs for reasons related to COVID-19, they will not lose their jobs.
  • Reinforce the obligations of all employers to ensure they provide healthy and  safe workplaces and send the strongest possible message to employers, that if they fail to do so, they will be penalized under the Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) Act.
  • Ensure that workers who report employer OH&S violations or exercise their legal “Right to Refuse” unsafe or unhealthy work will not be penalized in any way.
  • Workers who more susceptible to both the health and economic impacts of the crisis need additional protection from discrimination. Vulnerable workers include: immigrant workers, undocumented people, people living on low-incomes, international students, racialized workers and refugees.
  • Extend existing health and benefit plans for workers who have been laid-off.  
  • Provide health and benefit plans for workers who are providing essential work during the pandemic at great risk to their health who do not have benefits.
  • Provide necessary support and funding for organizations which are dealing with victims of domestic and gender-based violence.
  • Ensure frontline workers, including healthcare workers, have the necessary equipment to prevent infection and to reduce risk to others.
  • Make permanent changes to Employment Insurance (EI) to ensure no more than 320 hours are needed to qualify for benefits, and raise the benefit rate from 55% to 75% of earnings.
  • Monitor and adjust the CERB to ensure recipients are receiving adequate income to meet basic requirements .
  • Workers who have different training certifications, safety tickets and other licences due or have expired should have their expiry dates extended if they happened recently or are about to. 

These concerns are from many workers in our province who are feeling very uncertain about the future. Our Federation hopes that by listening to these concerns and bringing all voices to the table, we can do what is needed together, to ensure that Nova Scotians can stay home, or work safe as we flatten the curve of COVID-19. 

And that after – we can enter these unknown times in  a better position because we have mitigated some of the fallout by supporting and protecting all Nova Scotians. I welcome the opportunity to work with you to keep building a better world for everyone – one where no one is left behind.

Danny Cavanagh is president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour

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