Occupational research is the foundation of better workplace policy and safer work environments during COVID-19
As governments, health authorities and employers grapple with how to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, occupational health research is informing policy at every level. Within UBC’s School of Population and Public Health (SPPH), the Occupational and Environmental Health (OEH) Division investigates risks to workers, proposes tangible solutions, and improves public health through more equitable and safer work.
Dr. Mieke Koehoorn
One of the practical ways OEH faculty translate research into policy is with the Partnership for Work, Health, and Safety, a collaboration between WorkSafeBC and UBC. Co-director of PWHS and SPPH Professor Dr. Mieke Koehoorn explains that this long-standing relationship benefits everyone involved. “It helps identify the evidence needs, but also ensures that evidence is translated or communicated directly to those that make decisions or use it in practice.”
Pandemic-driven disruptions have brought workplace policy challenges to the forefront, including the issue of paid sick leave. Creating the support needed for people to stay home and isolate when they are sick is among the most important measures to control the virus’ spread, but many gaps currently exist.
Dr. Chris McLeod
A recent report from PWHS found that more than half of all workers have no employer-paid sick leave benefits. Worryingly, these same workers are more likely to be in vulnerable circumstances, including lower income groups and those employed casually or precariously, like temporary foreign workers or contract workers. “Right now there is a large proportion of people where if they don’t work they don’t get paid, and that means the ultimate incentive for them is their economic well-being,” explains Dr. Chris McLeod, Co-Director of PWHS and OEH Division Head.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new urgency around this issue, with the federal government recently committing to working with the provinces to ensure 10 days of paid sick leave for workers. Dr. McLeod agrees that an expansion of sick leave benefits is an urgent need. “Expanding sick leave to all workers who would benefit in their current employment arrangement should happen as quickly as possible.” Both he and Dr. Koehoorn caution, however, the proposed sick leave benefits may not cover all workers.
“I worry about self-employed individuals and their eligibility or coverage,” Dr. Koehoorn explains. Many of those on the front lines of fighting the disease, such as physicians, work as self-proprietors and could be left without coverage. “Other self-employed individuals, like the sole proprietor of a small corner store, may face difficult family and economic decisions about continuing to work even if paid sick leave benefits are available,” Dr. McLeod adds. Governments need to be aware of these potential gaps in the new sick leave policy so they can address the risks to both the workers and public.
“There are large groups of the economy who this will not be a solution for, like gig-economy workers,” explains Dr. McLeod. Additionally, for contract workers, sick leave policy is not as simple as wages alone. “People who provide contract services often need to show up to provide services, and if they don’t deliver they might not have a job because their business is built around their reputation,” he adds.
The other facet of reducing workplace transmission of COVID-19 is whether or not workers are able to work from home. “The people who can work from home are largely restricted to the knowledge-based economy,” notes Dr. McLeod. The PWHS report found that more than a third of workers are not able to work from home, and Dr. Koehoorn warns that these jobs are not evenly distributed. “We know that workers who said they cannot work from home are more likely to be in the lowest income group and in precarious employment relationships.”
The ability to work from home is strongly influenced by whether the home environment is suitable for work, even if the job can theoretically be done remotely. “Many workers are under-housed, particularly young and low wage workers, and now their work environment is their home environment,” explains Dr. McLeod. Additionally, “the ability to work from home is challenging for parents with young children during a time with limited schooling, day care or summer program options,” adds Dr. Koehoorn. Parents may have to work at odd hours, like early in the morning or late in the day, thereby extending their workday and putting them at risk of burnout.
Prior to COVID-19, Statistics Canada data found that on average women performed more unpaid daily work than men, and this disparity has likely continued or increased as a result of working from home, homeschooling, and the closing of child care. While more data is needed on these employment and care-related inequities, a recent report from Statistics Canada found that women were more likely than men to hold jobs that could be done from home, so while this may represent a greater likelihood of preserving an employment relationship, it may also mean that women are more likely to be the caregiver at home with children in cases where a partner continues to work outside of the home.
For some, however, COVID-necessitated remote working has demonstrated the feasibility of an arrangement they have been requesting for some time, explains Dr. Koehoorn. “Many are finding that there are some benefits to working from home, but also demonstrating to supervisors that people can work from home and not worry about the issues that have percolated around productivity.”
Dr. McLeod cautions that while for some working from home has had benefits, we don’t yet have the data needed to inform more permanent policies. Dr. McLeod and OEH have stepped in to conduct this work, knowing its importance. “We really need – and don’t have – research about this, research that understands who it works for, under what conditions, and who it doesn’t work for.”
As we return to work, research and data are needed to inform how to meet employment standards for benefits and remote work, as well as to identify and address the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The people who were most likely to lose their job as a result of COVID-19 were women, young people, low income workers, immigrants, and racialized individuals,” Dr. McLeod points out. “They are also going to return to work at a slower rate due to issues like childcare and transportation.”
For people with disabilities, many of whom already struggle to find full employment and who are frequently paid less than their counterparts, there are additional barriers to return to work, Dr. Koehoorn notes. “In many cases they are striving to maintain a hard-fought employment relationship, while facing health risks associated with COVID-19 for those with pre-existing health conditions, and struggling to overcome barriers including those created by public health guidelines.”
These issues highlight the importance of the work being conducted within the OEH Division: there are inequities within the economy, workplaces, and society that interact and exacerbate one another. Given the limited data on the effect of COVID-19 on workers, employment-related benefits, remote work and the rapid changes necessitated by the health crisis, there is increased need for this research so policy solutions are informed by and representative of workplace risk and inequity.
To contribute to this research, donate to SPPH’s Future of Public Health Fund.
If you are an occupational health researcher or knowledge user, help inform this work by taking the PWHS survey on Identifying Work and Health Evidence Gaps and Research Needs.
By: Elizabeth Samuels