The woman wants to make it clear: she is by no means trying to get time off work. She wants to work, and, in fact, has no other choice, with two young children at home.
She works in a St. John’s restaurant and January is already a slow month. With the restaurant closed since Friday due to a record-setting winter storm and the current state of emergency in the capital city, she fears her next paycheque isn’t going to be enough to budget for groceries and rent.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “It’s hard enough this time of year to make ends meet. I’d walk through the snowbanks if I had to, but it’s not a matter of that. Everything is forced closed.”
She hasn’t heard yet if her employer will pay her and her colleagues for the time they’ve missed due to the state of emergency. While some businesses are making that choice — Coleman’s grocery stores, for instance, said Monday it will pay all its retail workers on the Avalon Peninsula for every missed shift since Friday — there is no requirement for employers to pay workers for time they didn’t work.
More than 70,000 workers in this province earn less than $15 an hour, and with the living wage in St. John’s estimated to be $18.85 an hour, many people are working at two or three part-time jobs.
For some, there’s a clause in their contract or collective agreement stating they will get paid in a situation such as a state of emergency. But barring that, employers are only obligated to pay staff for the work that they do, explained St. John’s lawyer Melissa Royle Critch.
“If you’re not working because the business was closed in a state of emergency, your employer is likely not required to pay you for that time. The Labour Standards Act and the Emergency Services Act and the Municipalities Act, which all are in play here, are all silent on this issue, so there’s nothing in any of them that requires employers to pay staff when the business is closed and they’re not working.”
Here's a list of employers who are paying their staff for state of emergency days. Hopefully this will grow into a thread. @colemansfoods @lululemon @Other_Ocean @Starbucks #nlwx #nltraffic #stormageddon2020— A. Dee. (@Alleyson) January 20, 2020
In terms of employee protection, those living in St. John’s who work in Mount Pearl or Conception Bay South, where the state of emergency restrictions have been lifted, can’t be fired for not being able to work. They generally don’t have to be paid unless there’s a contract stating so, but it can’t be held against them by their employer.
It’s a precarious situation for those in the province who are living paycheque to paycheque — and that’s a lot of people, says Alyse Stuart of Common Front NL, a coalition of organizations lobbying for an increased minimum wage in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The current minimum wage is the second-lowest in the country, at $11.40 an hour. Common Front NL is fighting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and the comments it has noticed online over the past few days are a good indication why, Stuart says.
“The good news is that our public sector is amazing. We have all these folks putting in long hours, working around the clock to make sure people are safe, but on the flipside those folks that are not in unionized jobs or who are working for minimum wage, the difference between losing a shift or two shifts could be the difference between having enough money for rent and not having enough money for rent,” she said. “These folks aren’t taking a day off to lounge around. They really want to go to work, and they can’t because of the state of emergency. You shouldn’t have to go to work for $11.40 an hour and risk your life. That’s not what we want to see in this province, either.”
The current state of emergency, which is the first in St. John’s in decades, has also raised some questions about what an essential worker is.
Food Stores Open Tues. Jan. 21— City of St. John's (@CityofStJohns) January 20, 2020
Stores selling basic foods are permitted to open:
10am-6pm, Tuesday, Jan. 21
This includes supermarkets, convenience stores & pharmacies
Excludes: bars, restaurants, fast food chains & outlets
DETAILS -> https://t.co/2XF1LxJTPa #nlwx #nltraffic
First responders are absolutely essential, Stuart says, but what about gas station employees or those working in grocery stores, which will be opened for a limited time Tuesday to allow residents to buy essential supplies?
“Lots of those folks are making minimum wage or maybe slightly above minimum wage, and their rate of pay should reflect that they are an essential service. I don’t think people realize how essential these things are until you really need them,” Stuart says.
More than 70,000 workers in this province earn less than $15 an hour, Stuart says, and with the living wage in St. John’s estimated to be $18.85 an hour, many people are working at two or three part-time jobs.
Stuart reckons this won’t be the last severe storm or state of emergency situation, given the climate, and hopes the provincial government will take action.
“We’re really hoping the government will step in and do some emergency funding,” she says. “I think there is certainly a possibility there, especially since there is so much support online for it.
“I think we have a new perspective on what we need to do going forward and how, if this happens again, we are going to need to protect those vulnerable workers so if they are missing shifts, the government is able to step in and help them and give those folks the budget they need to survive the state of emergency.”
The Telegram has requested a comment from the province’s Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour.