VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — New information about workplace clusters of COVID-19 is shedding some light on which sectors have been hardest hit in Metro Vancouver recently, and a union leader says the data underscores the need for true paid sick leave amid the pandemic.
The information provided by provincial health officials Thursday shows restaurants, bars and lounges reported the highest number of clusters and individual cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health region in February and March — with more than 50 clusters, and 450 individual infections. In the Fraser Health region, restaurants and bars were number two on the list, with 50 clusters and more than 250 cases between Feb. 1 and April 12.
This information comes in the wake of tightened restrictions banning indoor dining province-wide. Two restaurant owners who defied this ban said they were doing so because they had not been given any data to show that eateries or bars are sites of transmission.
Dr. Bonnie Henry explained that it’s difficult to say whether staff or customers were driving cases in these settings.
“It was a little bit of both, that’s, That’s the more qualitative part of the data. It was a combination of things. Staff people were becoming ill, and people were pushing the limits, not wanting to limit it to six people to a table, or wanting to congregate at the end of the night,” she said.
“We started to see a lot more interactions where people were pushing the limits and not wanting to do what people asked them to do. In those places, we saw a lot of transmission — both between staff and patrons, and between staff and their households. So the social connections that people have were spilling over into workplaces, spilling over into people who were in those workplaces.”
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With more transmissible variants of the virus, Henry says small lapses began having bigger consequences.
“Suddenly, with those little bits of leeway we were no longer able to protect people, and we saw lots of infections,” she said.
Gyms and fitness centres were also high on the list of workplaces with clusters. In Vancouver Coastal, they were number two on the list but a fairly distant second. Fewer than 20 clusters were recorded, and 40 people contracted the virus. In Fraser Health, there were about 50 clusters, with 350 infections.
“Things that had been working quite well in many places were being taken advantage of in some places, but we started to see across the board increase transmission from some of the group activities that were happening in those settings,” Henry said.
When B.C. banned indoor dining, it also put a stop to indoor, adult, group fitness classes.
The highest number of workplace cases in Fraser Health was in industrial/manufacturing — with a total of 450 people infected. Henry said those sites can’t as be easily closed, nor can activity be easily curtailed. Instead, workers at sites with active outbreaks — like a glass manufacturing factory in Langley — are being targeted for vaccination.
Paid sick leave, time off to get vaccinated ket to stopping workplace transmission: BCFED
Meantime, the president of the BC Federation of Labour says these workplaces largely rely on hourly employees with no paid sick days who can’t do their jobs remotely.
“I’m not surprised by the numbers not only in service but in manufacturing in the Fraser Health Region. We see it in places where workers — obviously — they can’t work from home in these jobs, they have to be in workplaces with other workers, with the public,” says Laird Cronk.
“When we talk about workers in the service industry they’re often low wage workers minimum wage workers, workers that make a low wage are least able to afford to stay at home with symptoms and with no sick pay from an economic perspective. So it puts them the most at risk.”
Paid sick leave isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity.
Staying home when you’re sick keeps all of us safe – and no worker should be forced to punch-in out of fear of losing wages. Click here to tell our leaders in BC to do the right thing ???? https://t.co/S4qILWHHD0 #bcpoli
— BCFED (@bcfed) April 15, 2021
Paid sick leave, says Cronk, is a critical component of any strategy to stop the virus from spreading at work.
“What we know for sure is that workers have been going to work with symptoms and transmitting the disease in the workplace. We saw again today reinforcement that there’s workplace transmission.
We need to stop this chain, we need to stop this transmission in the workplace and the best thing we can do is make sure that every worker in the morning when they wake up if they have symptoms that they don’t worry about the economics of staying home that they can do the right thing and stay home without worried about paying the bills,” he says.
“That’s why it’s incredibly important that if they have COVID symptoms or any kind of illness feeling related to that, that they have the ability to stay home and not worry about the economics of paying the rent, paying the bills. They need true paid sick leave.”
Cronk says unions have been advocating for paid sick leave since the onset of the pandemic, and that the program brought in by the federal government is not an adequate substitute.
Cronk also says workers need to know they won’t be sacrificing pay in order to make it to their vaccine appointments. Although the province has said employers will be obligated to provide time off for the shot, there is no requirement for employees to be paid.
“Vaccines are now becoming available for workers, and we need to make sure that when a worker gets notification of their vaccination that they can get it, that they can get it without worrying if it’s during work time that they’re going to lose wages we also need to take that economic barrier away,” he says.
“We’ve seen evidence already of workers who have not shown up for vaccines. It’s not because they don’t want to be vaccinated, it’s not because they don’t want safety for themselves and their families and their communities. It’s because they’re worried about the economics.”Modelling - Workplaces - COVID-19