Millions of workers face tough choices as high-risk work re-opens during COVID-19

1.7 million workers may have to choose between health or income, if no modifications to CERB
May 15, 2020

OTTAWA – As provinces begin re-opening, following a COVID-19 enforced shutdown that protected millions of workers from high-risk workplaces, many workers will be pressured to go back to jobs that will put them at great risk of infection.

According to a risk of workplace infection analysis by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) Senior Economist David Macdonald, dental hygienists, flight attendants, hairstylists, barbers, child care providers, educational assistants, chefs and servers face similar risks as oil sands and meat packing workers, where dangerous outbreaks have already occurred. In total, there are 1.7 million workers in occupations at high risk of infection who’ve so far been protected as their workplaces are closed. If they are called back, they face the substantial risk of infection if employers don’t, or can’t, adequately protect them.

“We’ve seen bad COVID-19 workplace outbreaks among meat packers and oil sands workers,” Macdonald says. “As economies re-open, if protections aren’t adequate we’re soon going to find out if what happened at Cargill can just as easily happen in salons and elementary schools, where workers have a similar exposure risk.”

“For women and low-wage workers in particular, their layoff or lost working hours will have protected them from COVID-19 exposure at work, but this re-opening phase could well put them between a rock and a hard place: having to choose between desperately needed income and their own health.”

Key findings from the CCPA’s latest analysis shows:

  • Women are twice as likely to be recalled to a workplace with a high risk of infection. Among the 1.7 million workers currently laid off from high-risk workplaces, 1.2 million of them are women (69%).
  • 650,000 workers making $16 an hour or less work in high-infection risk workplaces and could soon be recalled.
  • Ontario had the most workers in high-infection risk jobs protected by layoffs (706,000), followed by Quebec (383,000), British Columbia (205,000), and Alberta (201,000).

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) coverage allowed many of these workers to stay home and limit their exposure to COVID-19 because it helped cover expenses. However, if workers refuse to return to unsafe workplaces and are deemed by employers to have quit, they become ineligible for the benefit.

“The CERB, with its present rules, could be weaponized by unscrupulous employers wanting to pressure workers to return but not wanting to pay for the needed COVID-19 protections,” Macdonald says. “This leaves employers with the opportunity to threaten workers with the loss of CERB if they resist returning to unsafe jobs.”

Macdonald recommends that provinces implement more rapid assessments of inadequate protections against COVID-19 in the workplace and that the federal government amend CERB to allow workers to refuse returning to high-risk, unsafe workplaces and still receive the benefit.


A full analysis will be posted at For more information, please contact Alyssa O’Dell at [email protected] or 343-998-7575. The CCPA is an independent, non-profit charitable research institute founded in 1980.