COVID-19 and What it Means for Precarious Labour in BC

Professor Bethany Hastie

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on workers in Canada and around the world.  In this interview, Professor Bethany Hastie sheds some light on why now, more than ever, it’s crucial to make workplace rights more accessible and effective for workers, particularly those in precarious jobs. 

Can you describe what precarious labour is?
Precarious labour takes many forms; it is typically characterized by some combination of low-wages, a lack of job security, instability in hours and income, and a lack of benefits. This can encompass a wide range of jobs, from grocery store cashiers to health care workers. We are seeing these workers face risks in terms of their health and well-being, as well as their income and job security, during the current pandemic.

What is it about precarious workers that makes them more at risk in terms of health and safety in times like these?
When we talk about “essential services” in labour and employment law, jobs like police officer or firefighter might come first to mind. In the current pandemic, a lot of precarious jobs are now being recognized as “essential”, such as grocery store cashiers. These workers come into contact with a lot of people each day, and they may be at higher risk for both contracting and transmitting illness. These jobs are often non-unionized, and characterized by the hallmarks of precarious labour – low wages, few or no benefits, part-time and casual employment with little security or stability in hours and income. This means that these workers may be both at higher risk of getting ill, and will also face more challenges if they do fall ill.

Many precarious workers do not have paid sick day benefits, and cannot afford to stay home unpaid if they are sick. For these workers, missing a day’s work could mean the difference between having enough money for rent or not. This means that precarious workers are more likely to go to work even if they are ill. This, of course, poses acute risks during a public health pandemic, although it is an ever-present challenge for precarious workers. 

One of the outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred at the Lynn Valley Care Home. A Globe & Mail article on the subject describes how many employment benefits for health care workers have been eroded in recent years, including clawing back paid sick days and a reduction in wages. The current pandemic brings into sharp focus the consequences of these trends for workers and the communities they serve.

The provincial government has introduced some measures to protect those impacted by job interruptions as a result of COVID. In your view, are these measure enough?
In BC, the government has extended new job security protections for workers. Workers who must take time off of work for reasons related to the current crisis, such as due to illness, now cannot be terminated as a result of this leave. This is an important measure to ensure job security as most precarious workers are engaged in at-will employment, meaning that they can be terminated at any time with proper notice or severance in lieu thereof. 

The BC government has also amended the Employment Standards Act to provide all workers with three unpaid sick days each year on a permanent basis. This amendment does some work to extend benefits to all workers in the province. However, for many precarious workers, it is not only fear of job loss that keeps them going to work when ill, but also the inability to manage a disruption or reduction in income. Requiring sick days to be paid by an employer would better ensure that workers stay home when they are ill. 

The federal government has launched the Canada Emergency Response Benefit program to provide income assistance to those not eligible for regular EI benefits. What are your thoughts on this program? 
The financial supports introduced so far are going to help a lot of workers. But it also shines a light on the problems that a growing number of precarious workers in Canada face when they lose their jobs.

The income insecurity and low wage associated with many forms of precarious work means that these workers are more likely to have acute financial needs if they are laid off or otherwise unable to go to work. While many precarious workers will be employees, entitled to Employment Insurance, the influx of applications in the current climate means that the delay in obtaining benefits may be longer. Moreover, even in regular circumstances, the reduced income an individual receives through EI may not be enough for these workers to make ends meet each month.

Other workers are classified as “independent contractors”. This means that they are not entitled to EI when they have no work. This categorization also includes the growing population of “gig workers” in Canada, such as Uber drivers. While some of these workers also have primary employment, they use “gig work” as a necessary supplement to their income. In the current situation, there is not a clear pathway to access government benefits to supplement that part of their income if they are no longer able to work.

What are some things that we’ve learned from COVID that could be used to improve labour laws? 
Ensuring that all workers have access to basic rights and entitlements, such as paid sick days, and access to sufficient income assistance when unemployed, are just two of the lessons that we have learned so far from this current pandemic.

The pandemic also shows us how the income insecurity associated with precarious work creates ripple effects on a person’s life. The realities flowing from the sudden loss of income in the current pandemic, especially for low-wage workers and those without savings, means that governments have had to respond not only with financial support measures, but also with measures to, for example, prevent eviction if someone cannot pay their rent this month.

In many ways, this pandemic has shone a light on the enduring challenges that precarious workers face every day in Canada. The regulatory regimes we have in place to govern employment, and to provide assistance to workers who are unemployed, apply to a decreasing proportion of our workforce, and do not reflect many of the pressing needs of the most vulnerable workers. 

To learn more, read this op/ed piece by Professor Bethany Hastie for Policy Note.