Sask staff get short end of the stick (again)

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The mask’s free, but time off is going to cost you. Kai Pilger via Unsplash

Wave good-bye to worker’s comp, PCRs, and competent leadership

COVID-19 is far from over. At the current moment, countries are battling the spread of Omicron, a potentially less lethal but highly transmittable form of the virus, and case numbers have skyrocketed everywhere. Most of Canada dealt with this by implementing additional public health measures to help curb the spread and lessen the impact on hospitals, but Saskatchewan’s government decided to sit back and put the responsibility of reducing the spread in the hands of its citizens. The only measures that remain in place are vaccine restrictions and masking protocols.

Following the choice to do nothing new, Saskatchewan’s active cases as of January 15 have surpassed 10,000, with more cases coming every day. People are scared and worried, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to end anytime soon.

Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party have repeatedly told the province that they won’t implement gathering restrictions again, because they say they do not work and that it would be unfair to people who did their part and got vaccinated (even though a large portion of people catching Omicron are vaccinated). Scott Moe was quoted saying people just need to “trust themselves,” even though the province’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Shahab, has recommended gathering limits and that people avoid traveling between communities in the province to prevent further spread.

“The point is that when we get together, like [large groups], Omicron is spreading so rapidly we are almost inviting this variant to spread. That’s why we have been advocating and have been asking that the Saskatchewan Government introduce restrictions and limits as every other government in the country has done. So why are they not doing it? I don’t know, you know, I really don’t know.” says Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and community health specialist at the University of Saskatchewan.

They have used the argument that Quebec and Ontario put lockdowns and further restrictions in place, and their numbers were still massive, but there is no evidence to say that their cases and hospitalizations would not have been more severe without the lockdowns. There is no guarantee that not implementing restrictions will protect the economy either. During the first wave of the pandemic, Sweden took the no lockdown approach and ended up with a large number of cases and high death rate at that time, and still experienced a drop in their economy.

“The whole health science literature is repleted with studies that have demonstrated public health measures work, it blunts the spread, it protects people who are vulnerable and especially older people. At the time of a pandemic – and this is a pandemic, not just an epidemic in Saskatchewan – for the government to say you have to trust yourself and that you are personally responsible to do the right thing is really abdicating their responsibility to make those policy decisions.” said Muhajarine. “You cannot respond to a pandemic in that way. We are not asking the government to keep everyone happy. That’s just not the government’s responsibility. The government needs to keep everyone safe and protected during the pandemic, and to put that responsibility back to people and say you have to trust yourself and that you know what to do, it’s really shirking the responsibility. It is not leading.”

One of the consequences of Saskatchewan’s lack of restrictions is that Saskatchewan citizens cannot access federal funding for COVID-19-related impacts on their work. Even though there are no restrictions for gatherings, many people and organizations have still chosen to cancel events, reduce capacity or hours to protect themselves, or deal with staffing shortages. People who rely on larger gatherings or the public to make money do not have access to subsidiaries for their income. The lack of restrictions and large amounts of cases also means that many businesses are operating severely understaffed or adjusting hours to compensate, which is affecting the income of other workers, who again have nowhere to turn for help.

The Saskatchewan Workers Compensation Board (WCB) has also released a statement saying they will not accept rapid antigen tests as a confirmed diagnosis. Instead, people will need a PCR test to ensure compensation for getting sick or any long-term effects of having COVID-19. This has created a problem for various reasons: a shortage of tests, and the fact that the Saskatchewan government has been actively discouraging people from seeking PCR tests if they are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, even if their rapid tests are positive. They have been asked to comment on this several times and have actively avoided giving a straight answer.

“There’s been a lot of issues with WCB and COVID, we’ve called for what they call presumptive coverage from the start of COVID which is basically that if you catch COVID-19 and you work in a workplace that’s public facing, it would be assumed that you got COVID on the job. The onus has always been on the worker to prove that, that they caught COVID as result of their work and not through other circumstances. So, the whole issue with WCB coverage for workers who’ve contracted COVID-19 has been an issue from the start, and the requirement for PCR tests doesn’t make it easier – that’s for sure.” says Eric Bell, the strategic advisor at the Saskatchewan Federation of labor, when asked about the issues surrounding testing and workers’ compensation.

Only time will tell what effect this will have on the province. One consequence could be an overburdened health care system from people suffering from COVID-19, long COVID, or long-term stress from living paycheque-to-paycheque while constantly fearing for your health. This burden is not just on the hospitals either, it includes everything from our hospitals and clinics to mental health care workers, physiotherapists, and every service in between. As well, it could potentially affect our economy and the job market. We already have one of the lowest minimum wages in the country (Editor’s note: six cents above last place, to be exact), and pairing that with work environments that do not have public health measures in place could hinder our ability to attract workers or get people back to the workforce.

It is easy to feel helpless at a time like this. Still, it is vital to keep doing everything we’ve been told by those paying attention since the beginning. That includes wearing your mask, getting vaccinated, staying home if you’re ill, demanding more from your government, and knowing your rights as a worker in Saskatchewan. Regardless of whether you’re a university student who is facing the potential of another semester online and the stress of trying to support yourself, or a health care worker who is isolating again, or a minimum wage worker who is terrified because five days off work means you won’t be able to pay rent – we are all in this together as citizens. At the end of the day, we are the ones who will keep Saskatchewan strong.

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