COVID-19 cases at Manitoba pork plant highlight need for sick-pay program: union, NDP

By | August 7, 2020

Workers at a Brandon, Man., meat-packing plant that has seen 10 cases of COVID-19 deserve to be paid their full wages for taking sick leave, their union argues.

Otherwise, employees infected with the disease may risk coming into work when they’re feeling ill.

“When there’s a financial hardship, workers sometimes make a decision that’s not in the best interest of everybody else,” said Bea Bruske, secretary-treasurer with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832.

“They make that decision based on financial need, and so we believe that paid sick leave is crucial.”

The union, which represents 2,000 of the roughly 2,300 workers at the Maple Leaf Foods plant in the southwestern Manitoba city, spoke Friday afternoon at a news conference organized by the Manitoba New Democrats to call on the government to mandate universal paid sick leave during the pandemic.

Maple Leaf does not offer paid sick leave to employees at the plant, according to UFCW Local 832.

Bruske said Maple Leaf Foods is encouraging employees who stay away from work to enrol in the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB).

The company is willing to offer employees up to 75 per cent of their pay if they do not qualify for the relief package.

She says that’s a positive step, but employees who stay home if they’re sick need 100 per cent of the wages they would normally receive. 

At the time of the news conference, UFCW had confirmed eight cases among workers at the Maple Leaf plant.

Later Friday, the company issued an update saying two more cases had been identified, bringing the total to 10.

‘Money talks’

NDP Leader Wab Kinew also said workers feeling sick may choose to go into work if they aren’t fairly compensated for staying at home. Those decisions may further spread COVID-19 in a city trying to contain an outbreak, Kinew said. 

“Unfortunately, money talks, and if people are being asked to give up their pay, it may compromise their ability to make the best decision for themselves and for everyone in the community,” he said.

Kinew is calling on the provincial government to make sick pay available to everyone. He said the province only needs to bring back the House for one sitting day to pass legislation, but the PC government said it’s not so easy.

The federal government has a $1.1-billion program that would cover up to two weeks of leave if they suspect they have COVID-19.

The province is still waiting for information from Ottawa on the program, and may not need to amend any law, a spokesperson said.

“It is important to note that it was Premier Pallister, along with B.C. Premier John Horgan and Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, who led the charge calling on the federal government to design a national program so that all Canadians would not have to risk their health and financial means,” a prepared statement said.

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