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Union seeks easier compensation for workers on COVID-19 front

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg President Alex Forrest wants the Workers Compensation Board to consider cases of COVID-19 to be presumptive for a variety of essential workers. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg President Alex Forrest wants the Workers Compensation Board to consider cases of COVID-19 to be presumptive for a variety of essential workers. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

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A union leader is lobbying the province to make compensation easier to obtain for those who suspect they were infected with COVID-19 on the job.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, is asking that the province deem Workers Compensation Board coverage related to COVID-19 to be "presumptive" for a wide variety of essential workers.

That means it would be presumed the virus resulted from work, unless that’s proven not to be the case.

"If they get COVID-19, it’s because they do not have the luxury to stay at home," said Forrest.

The union leader said he believes those benefits should cover lost income due to isolation periods, as well as compensate for illness and deaths related to COVID-19.

Forrest asked for the changes in a letter he sent the province on Monday. He argues it should apply not only to firefighters, paramedics, nurses and doctors, but also cover other workers who have been deemed essential during the pandemic, including staff who work in public transit, the water system and grocery stores, among others, he said.

Forrest said he will attempt to convince government to apply the change retroactively and hopes it can cover all workers affected by COVID-19 as of March 20 when the Manitoba government declared a pandemic-related state of emergency.

Since some presumptive coverage is already in place for firefighters who are diagnosed with certain cancers, the change should be relatively straightforward to implement, he said.

In an email, Manitoba’s Workers Compensation Board did not indicate it was open to the change.

"Unlike presumptions for firefighter cancers, COVID-19 is a highly contagious illness that is prevalent in the community," the statement said. "In this environment, the inquiry process that is used for adjudication of claims is best suited for determining causal links between workplace exposures and related injuries."

But the minister responsible for the WCB, Scott Fielding, said high priority will be given to workers’ COVID-19 claims.

"We want to assure Manitobans that if a worker is exposed to and contracts COVID-19 on the job, they will receive WCB coverage. We have confirmed that the WCB is currently adjudicating COVID-19 claims and will cover workers who contract COVID-19 arising out of and in the course of their employment," Fielding said in an emailed statement.

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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