(Jason Franson/Canadian Press)
About 380,000 public and private-sector workers will receive one-time payments of $1,200 for putting themselves at risk on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health-care and social-services workers and education support workers are among the 240,000 public-sector employees who will receive the critical worker benefit, Premier Jason Kenney and Jason Copping, Alberta's labour and immigration minister, announced Wednesday afternoon.
Employees of grocery stores, warehouses, food production, truck drivers and other private-sector workers who earn less than $25 an hour will also be eligible for the bonus pay. Their employers must apply to the government for them to receive the payments.
These are people who didn't have the luxury of working from home after the virus that caused COVID-19 reached Alberta last March, the premier said.
"They all face the threat of exposure to the virus every day that they show up at work," Kenney said from a podium in an Edmonton grocery store.
The province has agreed to commit $118 million to the program, matching $346 million committed by the federal government last year.
Watch | Premier Jason Kenney announces pandemic pay to front-line workers
To qualify for the bonus, employees must have worked at least 300 hours between Oct. 12, 2020, and Jan. 31, 2021. The eligibility varies slightly by sector. The government will release more information about qualifications next week.
In health care, maintenance, food and custodial workers, nurses, therapists all qualify.
Social services employees working with people with disabilities — such as personal care aides, counsellors and bus drivers — or working as early childhood educators are also among those who can receive the payment.
The list also includes educational assistants, school support staff and school bus drivers.
Public sector workers should receive the bonus from their employers within weeks, said Copping's press secretary Adrienne South.
A nine-month delay
Critics called the announcement is better late than never, but say it took the United Conservative Party government too long to get the money to workers.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last May that the provinces had agreed to collectively pitch in $1 billion to bolster $3 billion in federal funds that would boost the pay of essential workers.
While other provinces accessed all or half of the matching federal funds by September, Alberta was the exception, having accessed just $47 million of its $347-million allocation.
On Wednesday, Kenney said his government took its time coming to an agreement that would reach the most workers.
NDP immigration and labour critic Christina Gray pointed to an analysis released by her party on Tuesday, which suggested that the delay in channelling disposable income to essential workers hurt Alberta's economy, both in terms of lost spending and lost jobs.
Gray said introducing the good news now could be a "smokescreen" for the carnage expected to come in the Feb. 25 provincial budget.
The province is facing a $21-billion deficit this year, with sluggish oil prices and high unemployment expected to drag into the next year. Finance Minister Travis Toews has warned of impending cuts to spending on public sector workers; as well, the government plans to outsource health-care laundry, food services and laboratories, which could lead to as many as 11,000 jobs leaving the public sector.
"This announcement is $1,200 for workers now, pinks slips later," Gray said.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said pressure from unions and workers forced the government to produce the matching funds to get the federal money.
The Alberta government sent three proposals to the federal government before the parties reached a deal.
"The only reason they've decided to take that money and actually start trying to get it into pockets of frontline workers is because this whole thing blew up in their face," McGowan said.
Employers will have between Feb. 17 and March 19 to apply to the province for the money to pay workers' bonuses. With employers as gatekeepers of the bonus for private-sector workers, McGowan is worried some low wage earners will never see the money.
Ten months after the provincial government announced a pandemic $2 per hour wage top-up for private-sector health-care aides, some unions and employers are still locked in disputes about how to allocate that extra pay, McGowan said.
South said the government will publish online the names of all employers that applied for and received the critical worker benefit. If workers believe they should be eligible but their employer does not apply, they can contact the government with concerns.