Labour groups are demanding 10 days of mandatory paid sick leave for workers in Newfoundland and Labrador as thousands across the province are sick with COVID-19 or self-isolating.
The pandemic has laid bare a profound gap in income security for low-wage workers, says Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, and exposed a significant public health risk that may contribute to the virus's spread.
For nearly two years, Shortall says, their pleas to the provincial government to implement paid leave have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
"We had originally asked for paid sick days in an emergency simply because it was happening so much," Shortall said, recalling isolation requirements in the early days of the pandemic. "They take it under advisement, but we're not seeing any action on that."
Around 50,000 low-wage workers in the province are acutely susceptible to earning losses from taking time off without pay, she said, adding the policy often forces those employees to go to work when ill.
"They can't afford to stay home," she said.
Ottawa implemented 10 paid days of sick leave in December for all federal employees, a move Shortall says the provinces should follow. Newfoundland and Labrador currently mandates seven days of unpaid leave due to illness.
The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, a federal program, offers up to six weeks of compensation for eligible workers who need time off or are ordered to self-isolate due to COVID-19, but Shortall says that's a temporary fix.
"It should actually be a permanent piece of our labour legislation," she said.
The public paid sick leave campaign, spearheaded nationally by labour group $15 and Fairness, has picked up speed in Newfoundland and Labrador since it was launched in the province a few days ago, says community organizer Mark Nichols.
More than 150 letters had been sent to the provincial government from supporters as of Friday, Nichols said.
"I think we need to keep the pressure up. People see the need for this from a workers' rights perspective, but also from a public health perspective. We do not want people going to work when they're sick because they can't afford to go without pay," he said.
Shortall says the province should table the idea as quickly as possible, while keeping an eye on how to support smaller employers, on whose shoulders the financial responsibility would ultimately rest.
"It would be government's best interests, I think, to enact some type of support for those small or medium businesses that are struggling right now, because they're impacted the same way," Shortall said.
A request for comment from Premier Andrew Furey went unanswered. Instead, CBC News received a statement from the Department of Environment and Climate.
The department did not answer CBC's question about whether the Liberal Party planned to table paid sick leave legislation.
The Labour Standards Act "mandates seven unpaid days that employees can use for medical appointments or illness. However, this is a minimum standard and employers are free to offer additional conditions such as paid sick leave," the statement said.