At least 1,227 Manitobans got COVID-19 while on the job over a 12-month period, an internal Workers Compensation Board document reveals.

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At least 1,227 Manitobans got COVID-19 while on the job over a 12-month period, an internal Workers Compensation Board document reveals.

And questions remain about what the province is doing to prevent workplace spread of the virus.

Manitoba public-health officials have pointed to slumber parties and clandestine social gatherings, in part, for the burgeoning third COVID-19 wave; workplace spread hasn't been mentioned.

A Free Press request for that data Tuesday was declined by the province.

Instead, a government spokesperson pointed to an epidemiological report on the first wave from last summer and explained how the province collects and then uses contact-tracing data to develop public-health restrictions. That July 8 report contained no data on how many cases were acquired while on the job, though it did have numbers on declared outbreaks within workplaces.

The spokesperson said officials referred to the spread of the virus at slumber parties so average people could make informed decisions.

"Recently, anecdotal information from case investigations about possible exposures at sleepovers and play dates has been shared with the public to help people understand how some cases have been acquired. Last fall, information was shared about exposures in bars and restaurants. Officials have shared this information based on current trends so it resonates with people, and they can make their own personal decisions based on possible risk," the spokesperson said.

Although 1,227 people filed claims with the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba between March 1, 2020 and Feb. 28 this year, there were likely many more who were infected while working, suggested Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck.

"These are just the ones we know about that reported WCB claims," Rebeck said. "Many people don’t know they can go through WCB and many aren’t covered by WCB. The number is much higher."

Some jobs, such as teaching, aren’t covered by workers compensation.

"We have essential-service workers who’ve been working throughout this pandemic to keep the rest of us safe and they’ve been putting themselves at risk," he said.

The MFL obtained the Workers Compensation Board internal document through a freedom-of-information request and shared it with the Free Press.

The need to protect public health and paycheques is simply too great for government to ignore, says Keven Rebeck. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)</p></p>

The need to protect public health and paycheques is simply too great for government to ignore, says Keven Rebeck. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

The federation is now demanding the province provide 10 paid sick days for all workers and an additional 10 days during public-health emergencies.

"Over half of Manitobans don’t have paid sick leave. Yet, we hear daily from (chief public health officer) Dr. (Brent) Roussin, if you’re sick, stay home," Rebeck said.

The government spokesperson did not say whether the province is planning to implement a paid sick-day policy, but pointed to existing supports and guidance to help businesses navigate the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for Finance Minister Scott Fielding said Manitoba's policy on sick days is in line with other jurisdictions, in response to the MFL’s demands.

Manitoba "does not require employers to provide any paid sick days, but requires employers to provide job-protected unpaid leave," she said in an email.

She also pointed to the province’s past lobbying to the federal government to implement a paid sick leave program during the pandemic, and pointed to the payout from the WCB and federal Employment Insurance for COVID-infected employees.

Manitoba "was the first province to introduce a Public Health Emergency Leave, which provides job protection to workers required to take time off due to COVID-19 and aligns with current federal benefits and proposed extended benefits," she said.

erik.pindera@freepress.mb.ca

Erik Pindera
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Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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