The public health message is clear: stay home if you can, especially if you are ill. But as the Omicron variant puts significant pressure on Ontarios COVID-19 test capacity, important workers face a new challenge: how to prove they have caught the virus.
That struggle to find tests has sparked concerns about workers’ ability to access supports An obstacle to what experts say should be barrier-free access to sick leave and income compensation where necessary.
“During the crisis we are in right now where you do not have access to PCR testing and quick tests“You need a robust paid sick day policy that can allow people to stay home,” said Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Center.
With the province temporarily paid sick leave program now, stretching to July, Labor Secretary Monte McNaughton told Star in a statement that “under no circumstances can (workers’) employers require a medical certificate or COVID test in order for them to take this paid leave.”
“Anyone who thinks their employer has not paid them for the days they owe should contact our ministry so we can investigate.”
A ministry spokesman said employers could ask workers for evidence “reasonable in the circumstances” to confirm sick days. However, given the current testing capabilities and guidelines, “the majority of employers should not expect a positive COVID-19 test from employees at this time.” It is forbidden in the workplace to require a medical certificate.
Under the benefits program, workers can take up to three days off for COVID-related reasons. Employers then file claims for reimbursement from the government. So far, about 71,500 claims have been made – representing just over 300,000 employees, according to the latest data provided to Star.
But a monthly breakdown shows consumption peaked this summer when the ministry said the majority of workers used the benefit for “vaccine-related reasons.” December had some of the lowest sick day intake to date with just over 6,200 injuries.
Ladd called these numbers regarding.
“What we heard (is) that workers felt safe asking for a day to be vaccinated … but they will not use it when they feel sick,” she said. “By December, when people started getting sick with Omicron, they either ran out of three paid sick days or did not feel safe again asking for them, or they just went sick to work.”
While the ministry says employers cannot threaten or punish workers for taking sick leave, insecurity and lack of work during the lockdown make “people reluctant to miss work” even when they are ill, said Mariam Muharuma, a longtime restaurant worker and director of social media for hospitality non-profit Full plate.
“Priority rapid tests can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she said.
The province has distributed 55 million rapid tests to date and says it continues to implement as many tests as possible despite supply constraints. However, given these limitations, recent health guidelines note that the province is currently prioritizing tests for “health care and highest risk settings.”
Similarly, the December Provincial Guide states that PCR testing and contact tracing are now only recommended for specific groups, including those in high-risk environments defined as hospitals, long-term care, meeting rooms and “other environments” identified by local public health units.
(In a statement to Star, a public health spokesman in Toronto said, in addition to high-risk areas outlined by the province, that it would also prioritize contact tracing among “critical function providers” relevant to community infrastructure and health care.)
With the large number of Omicron infections overwhelming the case management efforts of strained healthcare providers, individuals with COVID-19 symptoms are now being asked to assume they are positive and self-isolated. Alternatively, Ladd notes, workers have to pay to pay for privately administered PCR tests.
In that context, she remains concerned about workers in sectors such as food processing and storage – former epicenters of workplace proliferation that have not been specifically identified as high-risk.
“It’s putting all the responsibility on the individual to talk to their employer about their rights, to constantly find out how to self-diagnose, how to make a decision on whether or not to go to work. , “said Ladd.
“You can not place individual responsibility on the workers for public health initiatives.”
Testing for scarcity and weakened contact tracking have other ripple effects. Employees who become ill in connection with outbreaks in the workplace can submit claims to the Danish Workplace Safety and Insurance Agency, which may entitle them to income support or health benefits. However, they must be able to show that their workplace was a major contributing factor to their illness and that their risk of getting the virus was higher at work than in the general public.
In a statement, WSIB spokeswoman Christine Arnott said Omicron’s exponential proliferation “creates challenges in establishing work-related relationships when deciding requirements.”
“We know the Ontario government has restricted the availability of publicly funded PCR tests. This is just one piece of information we can use to confirm the COVID-19 diagnosis,” she said.
“As this is a constantly evolving situation, we continue to monitor developments closely and follow the guidance of the Ontario Government and Department of Health and will adjust our approach as needed.”
How fast tests are available, some doctors has taken to Twitter to recommend patients to take a picture of themselves with their findings to help document their case.
Strong paid sick leave policies have long been identified as a crucial public health tool to curb the virus, with health and labor experts calling for barrier-free access to at least 10 fully paid sick days, which are legislated by the province.
In addition to the three temporary days available in Ontario, workers can apply for the Federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. It provides $ 450 per week after tax for workers who have a confirmed or suspected COVID infection, less than a full-time minimum wage job.
Muharuma said she was not asked for documentation when she applied for the federal benefit, but noted that the application says documentation can be requested.
“It’s impossible to get a test,” she said. “It will definitely be a barrier for anyone.”
The Canada Revenue Agency, which administers federal sickness benefits, did not respond to Star’s questions about documentation requirements.
In addition to the concerns about access to support, test capacity and contact tracking create worrying information gaps, Ladd said.
“When we had actually collected data, we clearly saw where the outbreaks in the workplace were taking place,” she said. “We saw clearly that these were racialized workers. It was low-income workers. It really showed where priorities were needed in terms of public policy.
“We are moving into a situation where we are completely blind.”