Manitoba workers welcome new federal benefit for COVID-19 sick leave, caregivers

When Andre Cornejo got sick with a cold earlier this summer, he followed public health advice and stayed home.

The Winnipeg welder got tested for COVID-19. He went back to work after getting a negative test result, but while self-isolating as he waited for it, he lost three days of wages.

“There was no safety net. There was nothing,” he said in an interview Wednesday, adding he didn’t qualify for the now-discontinued Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB, since he hadn’t been away from work for two weeks.

Now, minimum wage workers and employees who don’t have access to paid sick leave are expected to soon be eligible for up to two paid weeks off work if they become ill or have to self isolate due to COVID-19.

The House of Commons unanimously passed Bill C-4 in the wee hours of Wednesday. It will make emergency sick and caregiver leave available over the next year to those who do not have paid sick days from their employer.

It is now awaiting final approval from the Senate. The new taxable Canada recovery sickness benefit would be run by the Canada Revenue Agency, and give workers without access to sick time $500 a week for up to two weeks.

People who have to care for a loved one because of COVID-19 will be able to apply for $500 a week for up to six months with the Canada recovery caregiving benefit.

Jackie Sandul worked as a server before coming to Foodfare grocery store. She’s never had access to paid sick leave and welcomes the new emergency benefits. (Gary Soliak/CBC)

The benefits are welcome news to Foodfare grocery worker Jackie Sandul, who said she wouldn’t be able to afford two weeks off work at her own cost.

“It would be terrible. I wouldn’t be able to buy groceries because I have to pay my bills, and if I’m sick, how am I going to take care of myself if I can’t supply my medication?”

The new benefits come after the minority Liberal government reached a deal with the NDP last Friday.

“I think this is a win for many workers who have no paid sick leave whatsoever,” said Manitoba Labour Federation president Kevin Rebeck.

“This allows people to do the right thing and stay home if you’re sick, protect yourself, protect others.”

Foodfare store owner Munther Zeid thinks the new benefits are a good thing for both employees and employers. (Gary Soliak/CBC)

Foodfare store owner Munther Zeid said he’s happy business owners won’t have to directly foot the bill for the new sick leave benefit, which is expected to cost taxpayers an estimated $1.1 billion.

“When I first heard about it, I’ll be honest, I was concerned it was going to be something that the stores would have to pay, and that could hurt us quite dramatically depending on how many people took advantage of the program,” he said.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he’s happy with the temporary national sick leave program.

“It is important that Manitobans and all Canadians have this flexibility, which is why I, along with fellow Premiers John Horgan [of B.C.] and Sandy Silver [of Yukon], have been advocating for this type of national program,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

Manitoba passed legislation to provide job protection for employees who are self-isolating or caring for a family member due to COVID-19 in the spring.

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