Horgan promises to investigate sick pay changes following poultry plant outbreak

B.C. Premier John Horgan wants to beef up provincial benefits for sick employees, following a large COVID-19 outbreak at a Vancouver poultry processing plant.

Twenty-eight employees at United Poultry Company Ltd. have tested positive for the virus, prompting health officials to temporarily shut down the plant.

The premier called the situation “disappointing,” suggesting the outbreak occurred because United employees were worried about losing pay if they called in sick.

“Sick pay is there, not just to give extra dollars to people who are ill,” he said, “but perhaps ensure those workers don’t come to work, because they know they’re not going to forego their wages for the day.”

Horgan said he plans to meet with Labour Minister Harry Bains and WorkSafeBC officials to discuss sick pay provisions.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says businesses need to have enhanced physical distancing and support for employees, as well as a plan should an outbreak occur. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

More time and more space needed to keep employees safe

Union representatives, though, say sick pay is only part of the equation when it comes to keeping employees safe.

Kim Novak, the president of UFCW 1518, which represents several poultry plants in British Columbia, says the outbreak should serve as a wake-up call for anyone running a food processing plant.

Watch | Premier John Horgan talks about the perils of coming to work sick

Premier John Horgan says B.C. plans to talk to sectors that don’t provide sick pay and where employees are worried about lost wages. 1:56

Novak says it’s not enough to simply provide personal protective equipment. Employers need to give staff extra time to sanitize their stations and enough space to take a break.

“Traditionally in a plant you have very full lunch rooms,” she said. “Many of the plants we represent have brought in tents and trailers and other spaces, so that distancing is happening.”

United Poultry workers do not have a union.

No longer business as usual

B.C.’s top health officials say more needs to be done to maintain B.C.’s firewall against COVID-19.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix says British Columbians need to be “all in” when it comes to fighting COVID-19. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

On Wednesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry revealed a spike in new COVID-19 cases, reminding the public that the situation with the virus is still very fluid and a different mindset is required.

“Sometimes, I think, there’s a sense that it’s the brave thing to do, or the courageous thing to do, to play hurt or work sick” said Dix 

“That can no longer be the case and that is the responsibility of employers and employees”.

Henry said employees should not be penalized for staying home sick, suggesting public efforts to physically distance could be quickly undone if businesses fail to follow the proper protocols.

“If we start having these types of outbreaks and spread in our community, we can overwhelm our system,” she said

“And that’s what we’ve been working so hard to avoid”.

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