COVID-19 highlights the true value of vulnerable essential workers

The COVID-19 crisis should prompt a reassessment of the value provided by Canada’s most vulnerable workers, says Toronto civil litigator Stephany Mandin

With non-essential workers confined either to their homes or to the employment-insurance lines, Mandin, principal of Mandin Law says it’s illuminating to note who remains in their normal workplaces, putting themselves at risk everyday.

“It’s not just frontline healthcare workers who we consider essential, but grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and others whose jobs are critical to our food supply chains,” she says. “Many of these people keeping us going are in lower income homes or part of the gig economy, and what has become clear is that we undervalued the services they provide when times were good.”

“The pandemic shows that we can’t have a huge segment of our population living on the edge, one pay cheque away from being unable to pay their rent. As we return slowly to normal, we have a real opportunity to reprioritize our economy and look at how we value or undervalue certain workplace and service industries,” Mandin adds.

For now, the federal and provincial governments have answered the call in various ways, and despite their imperfect reach, Mandin lauds initiatives such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and Ontario’s “pandemic pay” boost for healthcare workers.

“It’s been a commendable effort, especially compared with what we have seen in the U.S.,” she says.

Still, it was a different story not so long ago, before any of us had ever heard of “social distancing,” Mandin adds.  

Last year, Premier Doug Ford’s provincial government used its first budget to slash Legal Aid Ontario’s budget by almost a third, and barred the agency from performing any refugee or immigration law services.

Before that, one of the Ford administration’s first acts in power saw it pass Bill 47, the Making Ontario Open for Business Act. In addition to cancelling a planned minimum wage hike to $15 per hour –the rate was instead frozen at $14 – the new law repealed a variety of Employment Standards Act sections aimed at protecting those in precarious employment situations.

For example, Bill 47 did away with provisions forcing employers to pay temporary agency workers at the same rate as full-time employees doing the same work, and to compensate workers for shifts cancelled with less than 48 hours notice.

“The groups who were most affected by these cuts were already on a razor’s edge in terms of access to justice,” Mandin says. “These are the very same people who we are all now depending on to run our transportation systems, get us our groceries and keep our healthcare services going during the pandemic.”

In addition to prompting an examination of the long-term fate of Canada’s precarious workforce, she’s hopeful the pandemic will have a lasting effect on this country’s relationship with environmental issues.  

“This relatively short global shutdown has had a huge positive impact on the environment, and I would like to see us carry on that momentum, instead of reverting aggressively to the way we were before,” Mandin says. “If social distancing is going to become part of our ‘new normal,’ it shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to consider rolling blackouts or other emission-reducing measures. She points, for example, to the city of Milan in Italy, where local officials struck by the sharp reduction in air pollution during the lockdown have reallocated 35km of traffic lanes rom use by cars to cyclists and pedestrians.

According to the Guardian, temporary cycle lanes, wider sidewalks and lower speed limits are at the heart of Milan’s planned reopening after several months at the heart of the European outbreak, during which its pollution levels dropped by an estimated 30 to 75 per cent.

“The pandemic has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to reevaluate our approaches in certain key areas, and I think we would be wise to take stock and use it to better ourselves going forward,” Mandin adds.