House Call with Carol Hughes

Day of Mourning takes on urgent tone in pandemic

Every year on April 28, Canadians observe the Day of Mourning to remember those who have become ill, been injured, or even killed at work. It is often marked by important ceremonies across the riding, including an annual gathering at the Miner’s Memorial in Elliot Lake. At these events, we re-commit to doing our best to ensure that workplaces are safe for everyone. This year, we are adding the names of front-line workers affected by COVID-19 to the list of those who became ill or have died from contracting the virus at work.

The pandemic has shown that workplace health and safety considerations are always changing. It also illustrates the cumulative effects of bad choices made by governments that were forcus on saving pennies instead of ensuring we were best prepared to save lives. It has forced us to reconsider the societal value of accepted employment models and proven the need to ensure that every worker has paid sick days.

As we witnessed the tragedies that unfolded in long-term care (LTC) residences in the first wave of the pandemic, we were hearing less about outbreaks of COVID in other congregate living scenarios such as work camps and group homes despite the challenges those settings encountered. While some workplaces, such as meat packing plants, proved to be difficult to secure due to close-quartered conditions, in most cases it was LTC and group home employees spreading the virus as they travelled between part-time jobs that proved to be the biggest challenge.

New Democrats were raising concerns about the growth in part-time, precarious work for years, but it took a pandemic to show that the concerns related to the employment model were not just theoretical. The criticisms that informed our efforts to halt and even reverse the growth in part-time work were confirmed when people who were forced to hold multiple jobs were seen as a driving factor for the spread of COVID among LTC and other congregate living facilities in the first wave. This led to our negotiations for paid sick days for all workers and ultimately the concession we forced from the government who, incredibly, weren’t going to address the problems in the heart of a pandemic.

It can be argued that workers’ rights have been a missing ingredient in public health considerations throughout the pandemic. The outbreaks in meat packing plants and distribution centres were avoidable, but governments have proven to be ineffective and deferential to corporate interests—all while mom and pop shops were not even allowed to attempt to navigate their businesses through the threat.

It is clear the government needs to learn from the pandemic and rebuild capacity, preparedness, and resilience into our public health systems. Whether that’s the production of vaccine or ensuring our stores of PPE are never allowed to expire without replacement, there is much room for improvement. So much of that improvement will be driven from within our workplaces with the help of allies like those in the labour movement. We can build on successes like federal paid sick days. We can ensure that workers at risk are prioritized for vaccinations and can demand the government do more to assist provinces struggling to administer the doses we already possess.

We must do this for the same reason we gather for Day of Mourning every year, because nobody deserves to die, be injured, or become ill when they go to work.