Unions and Coronavirus: Protecting Worker Rights in an Outbreak

Unions and coronavirus. Some may wonder what the connection could be between these two words.

The connection is not so strange as you might think. Unions have worked for a century or more to improve terms and conditions of employment. That has included championing sick and disability leave benefits. When quarantine was a more common practice, unions negotiated pay maintenance provisions for people who were quarantined. Unions themselves are also employers whose employees get sick from time to time. The list goes on.

At a time when the extent, seriousness and consequences of the current coronavirus outbreak are not yet fully known, it is important for unions to turn their minds to the problems potentially caused by the virus and its spread and what measures to take to make sure employees are protected.

For some time, unions have been trying to help employers understand the pitfalls of presenteeism. That’s the phenomenon where someone attends work because they can’t afford to miss a day’s pay, because they are afraid of the consequences when they take time off work during a probationary period, or they misread the employer’s signals about loyalty and dragging yourself into work when you just don’t feel up to it.

The goal for unions is to protect the employee from wage loss if they become ill or are required to care for a family worker. It is also to protect co-workers from infection. The reason employers should listen is that it is a classic case where the benefits mentioned above may also prevent significant losses to the employer’s operation.

Unions should speak with employers to deal with issues raised by COVID-19. Those discussions should be happening now.

The following is a preliminary checklist for that discussion:

  • If the employer can’t be persuaded to make permanent changes to sick leave or other benefits, discuss having a temporary protocol that expires on a fixed date or event.
  • One of the goals of the protocol should be to provide an incentive to employees with symptoms of influenza not to come to work.
  • Discuss what medical information is required and at what stage. Who will pay for any medical certificates?
  • If the collective agreement does not provide for benefits during a quarantine, then discuss what happens in the case of an employee who cannot report to work during quarantine.
  • What measures are available to allow the person to work from home? What salary maintenance is available?
  • What if the person is required to care for a person who is diagnosed with the virus? There are statutory rights to some days with pay in many jurisdictions, but none of them would provide enough available paid days for a virus to run its course. That is even more true if the caregiver becomes the patient at some point.
  • These issues may present both health and safety issues and worker’s compensation issues in the workplace. An employer that deals inappropriately with the problem may find that there are consequences that go beyond the losses that go along with an infected workforce.
  • If an employer is not responsive to any of the above, the issues may be raised in a health and safety committee.
  • Does the protocol have to say that it is in addition to any provisions of the collective agreement?
  • The employer should be explicit and clear about expectations for employees who have or are concerned they have symptoms of influenza. They should do so even if they believe there may be some individuals who may err on the side of staying home.
  • There have been concerns about comments about people appearing to come from countries where there have been outbreaks. It is important to reinforce the importance of human rights in every workplace.

Most employers do some level of emergency preparedness planning. It just makes good sense. Planning is something you do before there is a problem.

It may be that there are no serious problems in the majority of workplaces. On the other hand, it is easy to see that, if there is a more serious problem, it will likely be too late to get appropriate measures in place.

Anyone tried to buy an N-95 mask recently?



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