Last week, Alberta’s occupational health and safety regulator announced a probe into an outbreak of COVID-19 at a Cargill meat processing plant. At least 480 workers have tested positive for the virus, and one has died.

Another meat processing plant in Brooks, Alberta, has been linked to a different outbreak of COVID-19 in the province. At least 124 employees or contractors have been infected, and one has died.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, workers in Ontario have filed more than 200 work refusals over unsafe conditions. The Ministry of Labour has refused to uphold a single one, and set up an “Advisory Committee” which appears to be quashing the reports of Ministry inspectors. 

Working during a pandemic is dangerous business. This fact, however, doesn’t appear to phase the deep thinkers at the National Post. In his column today, John Ivison took the opportunity to warn us all of a much greater danger: emergency relief for laid off Canadians “risk turning workers into welfare slackers.”

As you’d expect, much of the piece is a vicious attack against working class Canadians, most of whom are doing their best to scrape by during the present extraordinarily difficult economic times. The $2,000 per month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is described as “lavish” — a term used in the headline, to be fair to Ivison — and a “summer hammock” (this one is all him). Workers, Ivison suggests, may “prefer to sit on their duffs” rather than return to work. 

You might expect a column in a national newspaper to include some data or empirical evidence to support these claims of idleness, but none is provided. Instead, Ivison cites “anecdotal evidence” from a working group assembled by the C.D. Howe Institute, a business-friendly think tank with a Board of Directors that reads like a who’s-who of Canada’s corporate world.

The core of Ivision’s argument, such as it is, is that people receiving the CERB may refuse jobs that become available now that the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) has rolled out. The federal government should therefore, Ivison argues, push people off CERB and back into the workforce: “As the C.D. Howe group suggests, the government could mandate that CERB recipients accept an offer to return to work, as long as the pay and conditions are not worse than they were pre-COVID.”

Interpreted literally, Ivison’s argument means virtually nothing for an obvious reason: working conditions during a pandemic are going to be “worse than they were pre-COVID” for nearly everyone given the health risks involved. Ask any of the hundreds of workers who have become sick in Alberta’s meat packing plants if the pandemic has changed their working conditions. By the time conditions return to anything approaching what they were “pre-COVID”, the CERB will be long expired anyway. 

Presumably, what Ivison actually believes is that people should be pushed back into work sometime before CERB expires, and conditions are still less safe than they were pre-COVID. Given that, it’s worth recalling why the CERB was created in the first place: we do not want people going to work in a pandemic.

It’s not a difficult concept to grasp, so let’s not overcomplicate matters. For hundreds of thousands of Canadians working in sectors deemed to be “essential,” going to work is now a dangerous proposition. You might get COVID-19 and become very sick. You might die. You might infect your family. They might die. You might spread the virus further in your community. These are all harms we want to minimize.

Because tossing more people into the COVID-19 woodchipper is not an outcome we’re striving to achieve, governments have shut down most workplaces and asked people to stay home. This means that millions of people have lost their income. This is a problem for those of us who need to purchase food, pay rent and cover other necessities of life. So, the Feds created the CERB to send $2,000 per month to people who lost their income. That puts them below the poverty line on an annualized basis, by the way — hardly a “lavish handout.”

Pushing people back to work unnecessarily in the middle of a pandemic will kill more Canadians. That’s the bottom line, and Ivison doesn’t bother to address this obvious problem with his thinking.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised — Ivison isn’t so much making an argument as he’s expressing an attitude of deep discomfort with any form of welfare, even temporary emergency varieties such as the CERB. This is a hostility that runs well beyond the National Post’s opinion pages. It has deep roots in Canadian society, cultivated by generations of disparagement — often organized by groups such as the C.D. Howe Institute — of the welfare state and those who may require its help from time to time. 

This is a difficult period for the welfare-haters, as the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted not only the necessity of a robust welfare state to care for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, but also its critical role in protecting all of us. 

It should be clear by now that none of us are immune to the harsh turns of fate. We are all just one accident (or pandemic) away from losing everything that appeared secure yesterday. We create and fund the welfare state in the good times so that we can benefit from it during the difficult ones. There is no shame in that, and don’t let anyone — much less Ivison — tell you otherwise.

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