Manitoba labour leaders and the NDP are calling on the province to work with employers and provide comprehensive and immediate paid sick leave benefits and paid leave for vaccination appointments.
"We know the situation here is becoming more severe," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Wednesday as 189 new cases of COVID-19 were reported as well as three deaths, including two Manitobans in their 20s.
"We need to ensure that people have the support to stay home when they're sick," Kinew said.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said the province needs to put its money where its mouth is.
"For the past year, Dr. (Brent) Roussin has been telling Manitobans to stay home if they're sick to prevent spread of the virus," the labour leader said Wednesday, the national day of mourning for workers killed or injured on the job or who've suffered from occupational disease.
"We need paid sick days now," said Rebeck, noting that COVID-19 has claimed the life of at least one Manitoba worker: a Victoria General Hospital health care aide. Jean Claude Dianzenza died after working on the fifth floor of the hospital where an outbreak of COVID-19 was declared on Oct. 23.
The federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit doesn't provide a full wage replacement for most workers, and can take weeks to arrive, its critics say.
The federal government recently rejected a request by Ontario to top up the federal benefit and called on the provinces to develop their own additional sick leave directly through employers. On Wednesday, Ontario announced it plans to provide a set amount of paid leave for employees who have to take time off work because of reasons related to COVID-19. B.C., meanwhile, is preparing its own sick leave plan.
Manitoba needs a plan "that's easy to use for the worker and delivered through the employer with no interruption to their income if they have to isolate," Kinew said.
When asked during question period if the province would devise a paid sick leave program, Premier Brian Pallister said he and other premiers continue to call for the federal government to improve its paid sick leave program.
"We'd like them to step up," Pallister said Wednesday.
Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding said that Manitoba is "considering ways to address gaps in federal programming and provide options to help Manitobans who aren’t currently covered under employee plans."
He said in an email late Wednesday that many Manitobans receive paid sick leave benefits through their employers or collective bargaining agreements.
Less than half of Manitoba workers have paid sick time, and the thousands who work in food processing, grocery stores and security jobs have to make hard choices, said Bea Bruske, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832. "They have to make the decision whether they should go to work so they can pay their bills or stay home."
They shouldn't lose pay to stay home when they're ill or have to forego a paid shift to get the COVID-19 vaccine, said Bruske.
Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Ontario have all legislated paid leave for workers to get vaccines. Manitoba has not.
"The issue is one of scheduling," she said. Many front-line workers get short notice of what shifts they're scheduled to work. If they're eligible for vaccination and schedule an appointment that turns out to conflict with their work schedule, they shouldn't have to lose money to get the vaccine, Bruske said.
"Workers shouldn't have to give up a paid shift to keep us all safe," said Bruske. "It's a community health issue."
Fielding said reports, which he did not specify, about employers recognizing the benefits of a vaccinated work force and allowing their employees to get vaccinated are encouraging.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.