Commentary,  COVID,  Income Security,  Labour Standards

A Healthy Economy Requires Healthy Workers

With the Omicron variant rampaging through Canadian communities, many industries are experiencing supply disruptions because many workers cannot go to their jobs: because they have COVID, were exposed to it, or are caring for others (like kids who can’t go to school). Perversely, this has spurred governments to weaken policies that limited the spread of COVID in workplaces. This may seem like a quick ‘fix’, but will only accelerate further contagion (and exacerbate supply chain problems) within days.

In this commentary, originally published in the Toronto Star, Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford highlights the contradictory messages from political and business leaders toward workers throughout the entire pandemic. At times workers were honoured as heroes for providing essential services despite the risks. But then they cut workers’ pay and undermine safety protocols – confirming they ultimately see workers as just another disposable productive input. You don’t have to be an economist, however, to understand that when mass numbers of workers get sick, the economy will suffer badly – more than if strong preventive measures had remained in place.

Stanford makes a similar argument (in the Australian context) in this analysis published in The Conversation. There, as in Canada, short-sighted governments responded to the crisis in supply chains by relaxing isolation rules and cutting back income supports. The result, predictably, has been an acceleration of contagion and even worse supply shortages.

When a Worker’s Death is Just a Cost of Doing Business

By Jim Stanford

Throughout COVID-19, there’s been an uncomfortable tension in how political leaders, employers, and public opinion have reacted to the challenges of working during a pandemic.

On one hand, many acknowledged the courage and sacrifice of those who kept providing essential services despite the risks. We applauded health care workers and first responders. And we thanked those in more humble, undervalued roles: like grocery clerks, cleaners, and delivery drivers, whose continued labour helped us weather the crisis.

On the other hand, a deeper reflex remained in place among employers and governments. They could quickly revert to a more dollars-and-sense perspective, in which workers are just another productive input: something whose continued supply must be assured, and whose cost must be minimized. 

Grocery chains offered $2 per hour bonuses during the scary initial weeks of the pandemic – but snatched them away as soon as operationally (and politically) feasible. Pandemic pay was replaced by million-dollar bonuses for CEOs amidst a COVID-fueled grocery boom. Premiers praised health care workers for their bravery – and then demanded cuts in their pay. And from the outset, the willingness of negligent employers to sacrifice the health and even lives of workers to maintain production – in slaughterhouses, corporate farms, and Amazon warehouses – was a frightening reminder of the amorality of the profit motive.

Now, with Omicron out of control, it seems employers and public health officers have thrown in the towel in the fight to limit contagion, protect workers and customers, and support isolation when needed.

The cannon shot signaling this new, grim approach was the relaxation of isolation requirements for workers with COVID. This started in late December when the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) cut the isolation period to just 5 days (for those infected and close contacts). It was lobbied hard by U.S. employers, who wanted sick workers back on the job faster.

Scientific evidence on this issue is mixed at best. Recent research suggests the average contagious period for vaccinated COVID patients is 5.5 days – and since that’s the average, it’s longer for many patients. But it wasn’t science that ruled the day: it was the complaints of employers that isolation was depriving them of needed workers. 

Other jurisdictions rejected the U.S. precedent. And America’s sorry COVID record (it registered over 1 million new cases last Monday alone) hardly constitutes a role model. But influenced by similar complaints from Canadian employers, our officials fell in line. The 5-day rule has now been mimicked in several provinces (including Ontario, Alberta, and B.C.).

In Quebec, the government even requires some health workers to stay on the job with COVID. Alberta gives individual employers discretion in deciding staff shortages necessitate isolation periods of less than 5 days. Meanwhile, B.C.’s health officer bluntly stated she is no longer interested in “telling [employers] what to do.” Instead, each business should make its own plan to avoid shutting down because of staff shortages.

Leaving life-and-death decisions to the discretion of individual profit-seeking employers willfully ignores the power imbalances that shape the day-to-day reality of workplaces. Without clear, strong rules, workers don’t have a chance of forcing their employers to behave responsibly.

Business leaders celebrate this turn to light-touch COVID regulation. Workers can be forgiven for feeling differently. Now, in addition to fears of catching COVID, accessing testing, and protecting loved ones, workers face an added danger: their employer can demand coworkers return to work even if contagious. Most perversely of all, almost no Canadian jurisdictions (outside of federally regulated industries and B.C.) guarantee enough sick pay to cover even this shorter isolation period.

Perhaps more than any recent history, COVID-19 has highlighted the callous logic of capitalism. Bosses need workers to keep working, no matter what: after all, that’s what produces the value-added. And if workers must die in the process, so be it. We must keep the wheels of commerce turning – and keep profits (which perversely rose during the pandemic) flowing.

No wonder workers are angry. No wonder there are more strikes, more union drives, and more individual acts of resistance (like resignations). When you suddenly realize your boss will tolerate your death as a cost of doing business, your attitude toward them (and your job) changes considerably.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.