Front-Line Workers Risking Coronavirus Should Get A 'Courage Bonus': NDP

04/02/2020 21:44 EDT | Updated10 hours ago

Critic Peter Julian called on the government to raise minimum wage to at least $15 during pandemic.

By Althia Raj

OTTAWA — Minimum-wage workers who are getting up every morning to perform essential work should get some federal cash too, the NDP says.

NDP Finance critic Peter Julian called on the Liberal government Thursday to beef up the minimum wage to ensure no one who risks their health to pack grocery store shelves, operate cash registers at local pharmacies, and provide sanitary services in nursing homes across the country makes less than $15 an hour, with a top-up of 20 per cent to all essential workers during this crisis.

“It’s like a courage bonus,� Julian told HuffPost Canada. “We are expecting these people to lead our country through this, when you think about it.

“The cleaners at the hospitals, people who are literally in very low, low-paying jobs, and yet the future of us fighting back and beating this virus depends on the work they do every day. And we need to have them at work, but we need to compensate them fairly.�

The Canadian Press - NDP Peter Julian stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 2, 2019.

The changes should be given in recognition of the risks they face for the rest of us, he said.

A minimum-wage employee at a Canadian Tire in Oshawa wrote an email to HuffPost saying they are afraid to go to work. The store is located next to a Superstore where a 48-year-old manager died from COVID-19.

“We’re considered an essential retailer, yet we sell no groceries (except for coffee and chips),� wrote the individual, whose name we are withholding. “We’ve been out of toilet paper and disinfectants for weeks. But we’re selling twenty times the ammunition we usually do. We’ve sold seven treadmills, three playground sets, two gaming chairs and a paddle boat, all essential. Everybody is stressed out, but most of us cannot afford to quit.�

The hourly minimum wage across Canada varies from $11.65 in Newfoundland and Labrador to $15 in Alberta. In Ontario, workers make $14 an hour.

Quebec Premier François Legault told Quebecers last week he is well aware that some essential workers who earn $12.50 an hour are making less each month than the $2,000 Ottawa is giving employees who’ve just lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.

He knows it’s unfair, he said, and he’s working with the provincial finance minister to fix the problem. “Give me a little bit of time. It’s not easy to set up, but I am telling you, those who are continuing to work and who earn less than $2,000, we will compensate you. Trust me,� Legault said.

HuffPost asked federal cabinet ministers Wednesday whether they intend to step in to compensate minimum wage workers who earn less than the $2,000 a month the feds have set aside to help those who’ve lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

Carla Qualtrough, the minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, told HuffPost the government doesn’t want to “disincentivize� or “in any way reduce the value and the contribution� of people who work in essential service industries and also get a minimum wage.

“We’re working to figure out a way to recognize the important contributions they’re making, whether it is through top-ups or through other means,� she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she said, is speaking to the provinces about ways to harmonize benefits to ensure there aren’t any gaps.

“As you can appreciate we’re doing public policy work that historically may have taken years in a matter of days, and as new groups are identified that necessarily haven’t yet been fit into any of these benefits, we’re working on that. Everything is up for grabs is what I mean to say.�

Some grocery store retailers such as Sobeys, Safeway, Metro and Loblaws, which also owns the Shoppers Drug Mart chain of pharmacies, have announced they will temporarily raise their employees’ wages. Loblaws is offering a raise worth approximately 15 per cent, the company said, about an extra $2 an hour. Sobeys and Safeway are offering staff an extra $50 a week, and a $2 bump up for anyone who works more than 20 hours a week. Metro is also offering a $2 an hour raise until May 2.

This “Hero Pay� campaign is due in part to the lobbying efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 90,000 Loblaws employees. The union is urging the provinces and employers of “courageous� front-line to step up. The union says it believes all Canadians who are required to work during the COVID-19 pandemic should earn a few bucks — $2 an hour — more.

Julian said he thinks Ottawa should compensate the workers to ensure there isn’t a piecemeal approach, and he believes Canadians would have “no hesitation� supporting these front-line workers..

“You hear about these cleaners who go into these seniors centres, and they know that the virus is present, and yet they are there cleaning, … and they are being paid minimum wage. I mean you have to be extremely courageous to do that, and we need to honour them.�

Like other MPs, Julian said his constituency office in New Westminster, B.C. has been flooded with hundreds of calls and emails from constituents who have been laid off, families who are struggling to make ends meet, and students who are coming into the job market, when there is nothing there for them.

He hopes Ottawa considers sending monthly $2,000 cheques to all Canadians — regardless of their current situation — so that everyone who might fall through the cracks doesn’t. The Canada Revenue Agency can claw the money back from those who didn’t need it next year, he said, through individual income tax returns.

“There are a wide variety of people who are impacted by COVID-19 pretty significantly financially but at this point … are not getting support,� the MP said, adding that hundreds of thousands of Canadians may not get help.

“This is all about a shared sense of responsibility and shared sacrifices,� he said.

“For the moment, what we need to do is fight this virus, and to do that we need to equip the people who are on the front lines.

—Peter Julian, NDP MP

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep cracks in Canada’s social safety net, the long-time NDP MP added.

The federal government’s monthly assistance program to those who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus, for example, will pay out a minimum of $2,000 through the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit and a maximum of $3,388 a month through the business wage subsidy program. Ontario’s welfare program, in comparison, pays less than $1,200 a month, about average across the country. When the country reconstructs, Julian said, he hopes there will be profound discussions around how to build a society so that families have the resilience to withstand the next crisis.

“But for the moment, what we need to do is fight this virus, and to do that we need to equip the people who are on the front lines. Those people have received very little support, so let’s make sure that they are aware the supports are coming.�

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