Dec 192020

Thousands of workers got COVID-19 on the job. But the Ministry of Labour has fined just one employer

By Sara Mojtehedzadeh – Work and Wealth Reporter – Sat., Dec. 19, 2020 

More than 7,600 workers have contracted COVID-19 on the job, prompting thousands of workplace safety inspections across the province. But since the start of the pandemic, the Ministry of Labour has issued just two fines — one of them to a worker.

Ministry inspectors have conducted over 31,500 field visits checking for pandemic precautions. They issued about the same number of health and safety orders, which identify workplace violations and require employers to address them.

But only one employer has faced any kind of financial penalty for breaking workplace safety laws and none have faced serious prosecution, data requested by the Star shows — even though occupational health experts and labour advocates say these deterrents are critical to protect vulnerable workers.

That task is particularly urgent in light of new data from the Ontario Health Coalition showing that workplace outbreaks, especially in industrial settings, now “far outpace the spread in the general public.”

“In the current environment, external inspection and enforcement is absolutely crucial,” said Eric Tucker, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who has written extensively on safety regulation and employment standards.

“When you’re dealing with workers in vulnerable positions, in precarious forms of employment, they are not going to be able to secure the rights the law grants them. And all too often employers will not be providing them with the level of protection they’re required to provide.”

In a statement to the Star, spokesperson Kalem McSween said the Ministry of Labour “investigates every complaint related to workplace health and safety we receive, to provide support, advice and enforcement where necessary.”

“The ministry is working closely with the Ministry of Health and Public Health Ontario to monitor the status of COVID-19 and to provide support, advice and enforcement as needed to ensure the health and safety of Ontario’s workers.”

“The Ministry of Health is the lead ministry for providing direction and guidance regarding provincial emergencies related to communicable diseases,” the statement said, adding that “multi-ministry” inspections have issued 27 tickets for failing to meet public health requirements under the Reopening Ontario Act.

Enforcing workplace safety laws specifically is an “integral” infection control measure, according to the SARS Commission tasked with investigating the province’s response to the 2003 epidemic. That report described the Ministry of Labour’s “sidelined” role as a key failing during the deadly outbreak.

“The evidence reveals widespread, persistent and ingrained failures by the health-care system to comply with, and by the Ministry of Labour to enforce, Ontario’s safety laws,” the commission headed by Justice Archie Campbell found.

“We must do better next time. The only way to do better is to ensure that the Ministry of Labour is in a position to oversee and enforce, as aggressively as required, Ontario’s safety standards.”

Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre called the ministry’s COVID-19 record “shocking.”

“The ministry is obviously not using the powers and the tools that they have to enforce and to send a strong message to employers that they can’t mess around on this,” she said.

“When you’re looking at health and safety, you’re actually looking at people’s lives.”

In September, the ministry announced it would hire 100 more health and safety inspectors to cope with the demands of COVID-19 and “build the largest workplace safety inspectorate in Ontario’s history.”

But workplace protections have remained a critical flashpoint: a new survey from the Institute for Work and Health shows half of essential workers reported inadequate infection control on the job.

In October, the ministry issued a fine to a teacher who tested positive for COVID-19 but failed to wear a face mask. The so-called “Part I ticket” carries a maximum penalty of $1,000. In November, it issued another ticket to a trucking company for violating workplace safety requirements.

The ministry has not launched any serious prosecutions over COVID-19 lapses, which can come with jail time for individuals and maximum fines of $1.5 million for companies. Serious prosecutions are usually considered when a worker has died or been critically injured as a result of a health and safety violation, and can sometimes take months to initiate. While inspectors can recommend laying charges after identifying violations, the decision rests with the ministry’s legal services team, who must weigh the public interest of the case and the likelihood of conviction.

So far, 23 people have died as a result of work-related COVID exposures, according to data from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates said there were “glaring shortfalls” in the ministry’s enforcement strategy.

“It’s their legal mandate to ensure workers are in safe workplaces,” she said. “Inspectors are workers, too, and they go into these workplaces and see what is happening … they must have full authority and approval to enforce the (health and safety) act.”

The data obtained by the Star shows that between March and October, the ministry’s 13,500 proactive field visits focused heavily on precarious sectors: those reliant on migrant workers, the underground construction economy, meat packers and temporary employment agencies. The ministry also conducted 10,300 reactive field visits responding to COVID-19 complaints or concerns raised by workers or employers.

The Star asked the ministry to provide the names of the 20 employers that received the highest number of health and safety orders during that period. Sienna Senior Living, which was issued 27 orders, was the only long-term-care provider on the list. Other than a poultry processor and a hand sanitizer manufacturer, the rest of the workplaces were construction companies.

While construction is a high-risk industry even outside an infectious disease outbreak, the workers most likely to contract COVID-19 on the job during the pandemic’s first wave were those in long-term-care homes, farms, hospitals and food processors, according to the number of accepted compensation claims at the WSIB. Claims are accepted if the board determines the individual’s workplace was a “significant contributing factor” to getting sick.

Tucker described the lack of orders issued in high-risk workplaces as “surprising.”

“You would have thought that in those congregate settings where you have people together in close proximity … will be where you would see the greatest number of violations,” he said.

Mario Possamai, former senior adviser to the SARS Commission, said the “continued sidelining of the Ministry of Labour” is an “ongoing feature of COVID-19.”

“I am troubled because it appears that post-SARS problems identified by Justice Campbell were not addressed,” he said.

According to the Ontario Health Coalition report released this week, the manufacturing sector saw the largest increase in cases between mid-November and early December, with a 77 per cent spike. By contrast, the increase among the general population over the same period was 22 per cent.

Focusing ministry inspections on precarious workplaces is an important step because vulnerable workers are less likely to be able to enforce their workplace rights, said Ladd. But part of strong enforcement is effective deterrence, she added.

“Laws need teeth,” she said. “We all know if we get a parking ticket, we’d better pay it because we’re not going to get our licence plate renewed. That is effective enforcement.”

In December 2019, just months before the pandemic gripped the province, the auditor general issued a similar warning. It found that while employers bear the most legal responsibility for workplace safety, the bulk of the ministry’s fines went to individual workers and supervisors.

“The ministry’s enforcement efforts are not preventing many employers from continuing the same unsafe practices,” the auditor general’s annual report said, noting that many employers were ordered to fix the same hazard year after year.

“Coming out of the pandemic, there’s going to be this push and pull around giving businesses a break because they’ve suffered a lot during the pandemic,” said Ladd.

“But what is fundamentally not negotiable are the conditions that allow people to be safe at work — to be able to go home at night and not put their lives on the line.”

Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering work and wealth for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz

Sep 082020

By Michael J. Prince

As the COVID-19 pandemic endures, the federal government continues to announce new programs to support the financial security and well-being of working Canadians. But not everyone is covered by them.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), introduced in April and scheduled to end in late September, will provide $76 billion to nearly 8.6 million applicants.

With this program, imbalances and biases in income security decisions were starkly exposed. Governments clearly expected people with disabilities to live on disability income benefits (such as the Canada Pension Plan Disability and provincial social assistance) of an amount — in most cases — of half or less than the $2,000 a month provided by the CERB.

If that was the minimum amount necessary for some Canadians to live with dignity during the pandemic, why was it not for others who face additional living costs related to impairments and health conditions? If anything, should those people not receive slightly more than their peers?

In the immediate term, Employment Insurance (EI) is being altered to enable easier eligibility and wider coverage than before.

The Trudeau government has also announced three new temporary benefits: the Canada Recovery Benefit for self-employed workers and other workers not eligible for EI; the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit for people unable to work because they need to care for a child, other family member or dependent; and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit for those who are sick themselves or have to self-isolate because of COVID-19.

However, for working age adults with disabilities these benefits provide little comfort.

The expanded EI and these three new benefits are not available to disabled, working-age Canadians and others who worked less than 120 hours in the past 52 weeks, who are unemployed, not on unpaid leave, or not in the labour force at all. Many are discouraged from the labour force due to the presence of attitudinal and material barriers and the absence of accommodations and inclusive workplaces.

Among working-age people with disabilities, more than 1.5 million, or 41 per cent, are unemployed or out of the labour market entirely. Among those with severe disabilities, this rate increases to over 60 per cent.

That some will get a one-time federal payment of $600 is too little, too late. This meagre one-time federal payment is cold comfort, exposing once again inequities and systemic gaps in income security policies toward people with disabilities.

The need is clear for a new federal income benefit for working-age Canadians with disabilities.

The case for a Canada disability benefit is not tied to the pandemic response and recovery, although this may prove an appropriate political context in which to enact one. Rather, it is linked to Canada’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Accessible Canada Act of 2019.

Any new federal benefit for disabled Canadians must be ongoing social protection for individuals and families, not just a temporary program.

To be adequate and to recognize the everyday costs for people living with significant disabilities, a Canada disability benefit amount should at least be $600 per week, indexed to the cost of living and adjusted quarterly like seniors’ benefits. Depending on the eligibility criteria, the annual cost could be $5 billion to $6 billion.

Recipients of this new disability benefit should be allowed to maintain their current health supplements and, like the Canada Recovery Benefit, be able to work and supplement their income through earnings –– with a generous earnings exemption and investments in accessible employment services and inclusive workplaces.

A national disability benefit would be the next great step in providing an adequate basic income for a group too long overlooked by governments and too long forced to struggle for dignity. Of course, many details need to be discussed in consultation with disability organizations and other groups across the country.

This benefit is long overdue. The speech from the throne later this month is a perfect opportunity for the Trudeau government to begin the process of this crucial reform.

Michael J. Prince is Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria and was a member of the COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group to Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Aug 122020

Here’s an excellent article by Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Jennifer Yang focusing on a major COVID-19 outbreak in an industrial bakery in Toronto.  They use this story to illustrate the woeful lack of consistent data on workplace outbreaks, plus the apparent massive under-reporting to MOL and WSIB.   

The article also highlights the vulnerability of the workers in these types of workplaces, including temporary agency workers in particular.

More than 180 workers at this Toronto bakery got COVID-19 — but the public wasn’t informed. Why aren’t we being told about workplace outbreaks?

Jul 032020

Media Release

June 26, 2020

Income Security Advocacy Centre and Parkdale Community Legal Services welcome the Supreme Court’s landmark decision for gig workers

Toronto: In a ground-breaking decision released this morning, the Supreme Court of Canada made it easier for workers to challenge unfair contractual terms imposed by companies that hire them, whether or not they are in a formal employment relationship. The court sided with Uber drivers and reached a decision that addresses the concerns about access to justice highlighted by ISAC and PCLS in their submission before the court.

Today’s decision in Uber Technologies Inc. v. Heller is a win for drivers who were forced to accept a standard “mandatory arbitration agreement” when they signed up on the Uber app. According to Uber, this meant that the drivers could no longer go to court or the Ministry of Labour with workplace disputes. Instead, they would have to go before a private decision-maker in Amsterdam, in a process that is both secret and expensive. In a 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the agreement could not stand, and the drivers could go ahead with a class action to determine whether they are employees.

“ISAC and PCLS teamed up to intervene in the case to argue that workers’ right to seek justice in our public institutions cannot be signed away or privatized,” said Nabila Qureshi, staff lawyer at ISAC who provided oral arguments before the Supreme Court. “Otherwise, employers can sidestep laws that guarantee workers’ rights.”

In siding with Uber workers, a majority of the judges held that the mandatory arbitration agreement was unfair, or “unconscionable”. “The court recognized that Uber is in an unequal relationship with its drivers,” Qureshi added. “Companies cannot use this power imbalance to strip workers of their rights under the guise of an ‘agreement’”. 

“This decision strengthens protections for workers who may be taken advantage of by the companies that hire them,” said John No, staff lawyer at PCLS. “To show that an agreement was unconscionable and therefore invalid, a worker will no longer be required to prove that their employer knowingly took advantage of the worker’s vulnerable status. This is an important victory for workers.”

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, previously undervalued workers, like farm workers, food delivery ‘gig’ workers, and cleaners, have been recognized as essential to our community and achieved important gains,” No added. “But like grocery stores that cancelled pandemic pay, employers still have great power over workers. To have a more just and fair society, we need to transform working conditions and the systems that allow for exploitation.”

In an earlier decision in this case, the Court of Appeal for Ontario had found that mandatory arbitration agreements imposed by employers are always illegal because they violate Ontario’s Employment Standards Act. The Supreme Court did not disagree with that ruling, but left that issue to be determined on another day.  

Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC) is a community legal clinic with a mandate to advance the systemic interests and rights of low-income Ontarians around income security programs and low-wage precarious employment.

Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS) serves low income residents of Parkdale and Swansea neighbourhoods in Toronto. Since its founding in 1971, PCLS has advised and represented thousands of employees and former employees against their employers.

May 202020

As we continue to adjust to our ongoing office closure, Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic will begin having online town hall/education events about pressing issues related to Workers Compensation. 

We will kick things off next Wednesday, May 27th at 3pm, with a session titled:

COVID-19 Crisis – Is WSIB there for the injured?
Presented by IWC staff, along with injured workers and allies. 
Coronavirus has created all kinds of new expenses for Injured Workers, but the WSIB isn’t paying for increased grocery costs, safer travel expenses, or PPE. Join us for a town hall-style event to discuss WSIB’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, and what you can do about it.

Interested participants are encouraged to register for the Town Hall here:

Joining through CrowdCast will allow people to interact with each other and ask the presenters questions. 

If people are not keen to sign up formally, it will also be streamed on YouTube at:

Posters are attached. Thanks! 

May 142020

Article in The Star, April 5, 2020.

Peter Martin doesn’t get it.

Workers who have suddenly lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 crisis are receiving $2,000 a month from Ottawa to keep them afloat. And soon students will be getting between $1,250 and $1,750 a month to make up for the loss of summer jobs.

Yet Martin, 59, a former constitutional lawyer who lost everything about a decade ago after a mental breakdown, struggles to survive on just $1,169 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the province’s welfare program for the disabled.

“It’s a very frustrating situation,” he said from his Junction-area apartment where he is self-isolating with his black cat.

“They are getting $2,000 when they have a house to live in and supports and sometimes savings — as opposed to people like us who live cheque to cheque,” he said.

Martin and other Canadians on social assistance live between 40 and 60 per cent below the poverty line and are forced to rely on community supports such as drop-in meal programs and food banks to survive.

As physical-distancing orders push many of those programs to close, Ottawa and Ontario are pumping $350 million and $200 million respectively into social service agencies to fill the gap.

But Martin wonders why there is a federal plan for workers and students but no financial help for people like him.

“They are giving money to agencies to provide food to people who come out of isolation to get it,” he said. “Why not just give the money to us so we can buy our own groceries?”

It is a question supporters of a basic income were asking long before the coronavirus struck China earlier this year and exploded into a global health crisis. And it is a demand they have since amplified through an online petition signed by more than 30,000 calling for an emergency basic income to help Canadians weather the storm.

Ottawa responded March 26 with the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), a monthly payment of $2,000 for four months that will go to any worker who earned at least $5,000 in the past 12 months and has lost their job as a result of the pandemic. The benefit was expanded earlier this month to include anyone earning less than $1,000 a month.

“It’s not the unconditional basic income that Canadians across the country asked for when they signed our petition,” acknowledged Toronto businessman Floyd Marinescu, founder of UBI Works Canada, which launched the petition March 16. “But it’s a signal that our leaders recognize the value of a basic income as an economic recovery measure.

“This emergency basic income will open the door for our government to learn about the benefits of a UBI as an economic stimulus that will benefit all Canadians — and act to make it reality,” he said in a statement on the campaign’s Facebook page.

The reason unemployed workers are being treated so much better in this crisis than people on social assistance is that middle-income voters swing elections and society’s most vulnerable often don’t vote, Marinescu said in an interview.

And that is why this is a historic opportunity.

“As many as four million Canadians are going to be applying for the CERB and will see just how precarious their own situation is. With that real, lived experience, we can rally the centre to implement a basic income for everyone,” he said.

Businesses automate to survive when times are tough, and this global crisis will see even more jobs lost to automation, Marinescu added.

He predicts more than two million Canadians who will receive a temporary basic income through the CERB may not have jobs to come back to when it runs out.

“Now is the time to push for a UBI so this next recession can be shorter and we can all come out better off,” he said.

Former Tory senator Hugh Segal couldn’t agree more.

He helped design Ontario’s ill-fated basic income pilot project, introduced in 2017 by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2017 and scrapped by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives when they swept to power in June 2018.

Because the experiment ended prematurely, the province — and researchers watching around the world — were not able to determine if sending unconditional cash payments to low-income residents improved their health, education, housing and employment prospects.

But informal surveys of those who participated showed promise. A majority who had low-wage jobs before the trial remained in the workforce. Many went back to school, and mental health improved dramatically.

Segal’s model was similar to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors that kicks in when incomes drop below a certain level.

It brought incomes for working-age adults up to about 75 per cent of the provincial poverty line, or about $1,400 a month. Individuals with disabilities got a monthly top-up of $500. It was a stark difference compared to Ontario’s current monthly social assistance benefits of $733 for people deemed able to work and $1,169 for those with disabilities.

And unlike social assistance, Segal argues his basic income model encouraged people to work because those with annual incomes of up to $34,000 — or about $12,000 above the poverty line — would still receive some support.

On social assistance, onerous monthly reporting requirements allow people to keep just $200 in earnings a month before clawbacks. It means someone on Ontario Works (OW) deemed employable can earn only $1,666 a month — or just under $20,000 a year — before they get kicked off.

Compared to the $100-billion-plus COVID-19 federal relief package, the Parliamentary Budget Office in 2018 estimated it would cost Ottawa just $43 billion in new funding to provide a national, guaranteed minimum income, similar to the one Ontario was testing. And it would support about 7.5 million working-age Canadians.

Segal, the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, says the global pandemic highlights the vulnerability of precarious workers and people with disabilities struggling to survive on social assistance.

“Once the pandemic is under control and people can relax a bit, the public and policy-makers will be taking a hard took at what went wrong and what we could do better,” he said in an interview.

“And one area for reform is the lack of agility our existing social cash-transfer systems have with respect to getting money to low-income people quickly when necessary,” he said.

Polling shows close to 70 per cent of Canadians support basic income, Segal noted.

“We already have a basic income for children through the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors and a tiny bit of help for low-income people through the GST tax credit,” he said.

“It’s not really the world’s largest construction job to put those things together and find a way to do this through a basic income guarantee for all … It’s just a question of political will.”

Public sector unions and those who worry about the collapse of social programs will oppose it, he predicted, as will those who argue paying people to do nothing will cause them to abandon the labour force.

But basic income is about more efficient cash transfers to people, not about cutting services, Segal said. And 70 per cent of people living in poverty have a job, he noted. Often more than one. A basic income could supplement that low-wage work and lift them out of poverty, he said.

The other roadblock will be government finance officials who would see such a large, annual expenditure as a limit on their ability to design and craft new initiatives, Segal said.

“Those three groups of opponents are going to be just as dug in after (the pandemic) as they are now,” he predicted.

Adding to the challenge, will be the call for fiscal restraint to bring down a deficit that will likely top $200 billion due to the crisis.

But in a minority government anything can happen, Segal said, suggesting the NDP and others could make basic income a condition of support.

“I remain really optimistic,” he said. “But I think we have to be realistic about the constraints that we’re going to have to face.”

University of Manitoba economist Evelyn Forget’s research on Manitoba’s minimum basic income experiment in the late 1970s has been a major force behind renewed interest in the concept. One of her promising findings from the rural town of Dauphin, where most low-income families received the benefit, was a drop in hospital admissions and an increase in high school graduations.

Basic income is always discussed during times of economic collapse, most recently during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, she noted.

But once the economy recovers, the idea falls by the wayside.

“One of the things we are seeing now is how limited existing programs are, and how hard it is to make them work together to make sure nobody falls through the gaps,” she said in an interview from Winnipeg.

“It’s because we don’t have a basic income. That’s going to be hard for people to ignore going forward,” she predicted. “The limitations of those programs are becoming very, very apparent.”

Basic income could gain more acceptance after the pandemic if today’s economic measures to support business and ordinary Canadians are successful — and remain popular with the public, she predicted.

“But we are at a point where things could go in either direction,” she said.

If the government’s action is shown to be excessive or wasteful, the idea of more broader basic-income-type measures could fizzle.

“One hopes basic income doesn’t have to wear any mistakes they might make,” she added.

Economist Armine Yalnizyan, however, says a basic income for everyone is the last thing Canada needs when the crisis is over.

“Basic income helps people make the choice of not going to work,” said Yalnizyan, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation’s fellow on the future of workers.

“And when this is over, we are going to need all hands on deck. We can already anticipate labour shortages in the essential services and non-profit sector, in health care, child care, first responders — work that robots can’t do.”

For Yalnizyan and labour activists, basic services — child care, pharmacare, dental and vision care and more affordable, reliable public transit — are a better bet for the same public investment.

Building a robust system of basic services for everyone will grow the middle class and allow its members to spend money on more discretionary items, she argued.

With an aging society, Canada will need its working-age population to have enough discretionary income to keep the economy growing, she added.

“Yes, we have to focus on the most vulnerable. Yes, we have to stabilize the economy from the bottom up. Yes, we have to fill in the cracks in the floor so the whole building doesn’t collapse,” she said, noting governments are scrambling to do that now in the eye of the pandemic.

“But when we get through to the other side … we have to also set our sights on making sure those who are able to work, and can work full-time, are working. And that their work is valued.”

Increasing incomes — valuing the caring work that this crisis has highlighted — is a better economic strategy than giving people basic incomes to bolster lousy pay, she argued.

Toronto social policy expert John Stapleton is also a skeptic who says a basic income for every Canadian from cradle to grave would “never fly,” particularly with seniors who would oppose any attempt to tinker with their hard-earned benefits.

But the former provincial social services bureaucrat says the pandemic may provide an opening for a less overbearing and dehumanizing welfare system.

The ministry’s move in March to suspend mandatory monthly income reporting for people on social assistance during the crisis — largely due to the need for physical distancing — brings the program one step closer to a basic-income-type delivery model, Stapleton said.

“It could be the beginning of streamlining the system and making it less onerous on people and (case) workers,” he said. “It’s kind of like basic income through the back door.”

Yalniyzan agrees that COVID-19 may force governments to rethink support to the most vulnerable working-age adults, those who are too ill to work or who can’t work full-time. And a federal program, based on a basic income, may be the way to go.

“Through this experience, more eyes have been opened to the reality facing a lot of our neighbours,” she said. “And we have seen in real time our ability to respond together when we view ourselves as in it together.”

The question is whether that sense of solidarity will last.

Peter Martin certainly hopes so.

In ordinary times, Martin pays $740 of his $1,169 monthly ODSP cheque on rent and about $300 on medical marijuana to control his severe PTSD. The remaining $129 goes toward transportation to the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) for meals and socialization and where he earns $30 a week as a peer support worker.

But to keep staff and community members safe, PARC has suspended all peer support work and is limiting drop-in meals to people who are homeless.

Martin is paying a friend to buy him groceries out of the money he usually spends on TTC fare while he self-isolates due to an underlying health condition that makes him vulnerable to the virus.

“There are an awful lot of people on ODSP right now who are really, really scared,” he said. “We’re talking about not paying our rent because we need to buy food.”

Martin admires the heroism of health-care workers and others on the front lines helping the sick and vulnerable. And he is buoyed by the collective concern of Canadians “pulling together” to get through the crisis.

“But for people like us, this is not a crisis,” he said. “It is just another crisis.

“I just hope people remember us when this is over.”

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

May 132020

Article from The Star, May 11, 2020.

VANCOUVER—British Columbia is changing its workers’ compensation system to make it easier for those sick with COVID-19 to make claims for lost pay — the type of reforms Ontario workers have been seeking for more than a month.

All workers in industries deemed essential by B.C. will be able to make a claim to workers’ compensation without having to prove they got the disease at work.

It’s a matter of adding COVID-19 to a list of presumptive conditions acknowledged by WorkSafeBC — the provincial occupational health and safety body.

Critics in Ontario say it’s another reminder that their province could be doing more to protect essential workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines.

“We now have over 2,000 health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19,” reads a May 5 letter sent by Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates to the premier and two ministers.

“They and other essential workers need to know that your government has their back — that if they get sick or need to be quarantined, our workers’ compensation system will fully support them.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) first asked the province to ramp up its workers’ compensation program in a written proposal on April 3. It included the demand that essential workers sick with COVID-19 should not have to wonder whether their claims for compensation will be accepted.

When Ontario workers get sick or injured on the job and lose pay because of it, they make claims with the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB), the provincial body that adjudicates claims and administers payouts. Usually, the onus is on the worker to prove that the injury or illness took place at work — otherwise their claim could be denied.

But there are exceptions. Certain conditions are presumed to be work related for insurance purposes in specific job categories. For example, a firefighter who develops cancer can get workers’ compensation without having to prove the cancer was related to smoke exposure — it’s presumed that’s the case.

For Jennifer Whiteside, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Hospital Employees Union, which represents care aides and other health-care workers, the new changes are a crucial step to keeping workers physically and financially safe.

“It means they will have fewer hoops to jump through to get their claim accepted,” she said, adding it would hopefully help ensure the worker uses the time they are sick to stay home and get well, without feeling pressured to get back to work too early.

“We can’t afford to be losing health-care workers for long periods of time due to illness,” she said.

Although a positive measure, Whiteside says it’s not the same as guaranteeing sick pay provisions to workers in all essential industries — where the standard number of paid sick days varies across industries and workplaces. And she wants to see presumption applied to mental health conditions related to working through a pandemic also.

The addition of COVID-19 as a presumptive condition will also take six months to kick in — a delay that could be significant, especially for low paid workers.

“The B.C. government’s emergency powers give it the authority to swiftly act to protect workers — both the essential workers we’ve asked to show up throughout this pandemic, and those who return to work as we enter the next phase,” B.C. Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk said in a press release. “It’s time to use those powers.”

WSIB and WorkSafeBC both published data last week on the number of COVID-19 related claims they had received since the beginning of the pandemic. The Ontario body received 3,004 COVID-19 related claims as of May 5, while the B.C. body received 340 as of May 6.

Health-care workers represented 428 total coronavirus cases in B.C. at the end of last month, while the number in Ontario is more than 2,200.

Coates, the OFL president, referred to B.C.’s action in her May 5 letter and urged the province to follow suit. Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen