Alberta government weighs response as coronavirus pandemic, oil shocks hit globally and at home
It was a busy, perhaps unprecedented, day for the province on all fronts Wednesday.
As his government weighed potential stimulus options to buttress the provincial economy against the global coronavirus outbreak and oil market turmoil, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney boarded a flight to Ottawa to meet with his fellow first ministers.
Back in Edmonton, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced more confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, bringing the total in the province to 19. Her announcement came shortly after the World Health Organization officially termed the disease, which has killed over 4,700 globally, a pandemic.
Meanwhile, oil prices were hit hard for the second time in a week as Saudi Arabia doubled down on its threat to ramp up production despite weakening demand caused by the virus. West Texas Intermediate, the global oil benchmark, fell four per cent to US$32.98.
Premier says pandemic will be top of mind at first ministers’ meeting
Before departing from Calgary International Airport, Kenney said the public health threat of the COVID-19 virus will be top of mind when his fellow premiers gather in the nation’s capital with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
He welcomed Trudeau’s earlier announcement that Ottawa is preparing $1 billion in COVID-19 relief and expanding eligibility for Employment Insurance. Half of the funding, or $500 million, will be allocated to the provinces and territories to cover testing costs and equipment purchases, and to boost their surveillance and monitoring efforts.
Research into a vaccine for the virus — still thought to be at least a year away — will receive $275 million in funding, and $150 million will go towards public health, including through Indigenous Services Canada.
Kenney estimated the province’s health-care costs related to the coronavirus have amounted to $80 million thus far, while Ottawa’s new funding package might only amount to $60 million.
Last night, federal Health Minister Patty Hadju said 30 to 70 per cent of Canadians could contract the virus.
While in Ottawa, Kenney said he will ask the federal government to bolster funding for protective personal equipment for frontline health workers.
He also has a list of requests aimed at securing Alberta’s economy, most dating back to the Liberal’s federal election win.
“We are facing a triple whammy right now with the fragility of our economy after five years of economic stagnation, on top of which [is] an apparently global economic downturn instigated by the global spread of the novel coronavirus and, thirdly, the total collapse of energy prices this week as the result of a price war by two unfriendly regimes — the Saudis and the Russians,” Kenney said.
Provincial government weighing options for workers
Meanwhile, Kenney’s government is considering passing an order-in-council that would remove the requirement for people to get a doctor’s note in order to get time off of work, or to be approved to go back to work if they have been in self-isolation.
Brittany Baltimore, press secretary to Immigration and Labour Minister Jason Copping, said the government is “working to ensure that people cannot be laid off or punished if they don’t go to work because they are in self-isolation.”
In the interim, Alberta Health Services is providing documentation to those who test positive, or have been in close contact with someone who has, so that they don’t need to seek out a doctor’s note.
So far, the government has stopped short of legally extending paid protected leave, but is encouraging employers “to be understanding.”
“We trust Alberta’s employers will work with us so we can all do what’s best to protect the public,” Baltimore said in a statement.
Opposition and labour critics say the government must do more
NDP Labour critic Christina Gray said the province should end the requirement for a doctor’s note, temporarily expand job-protected leave to 14 days for those who are self-isolating, and offer financial support to affected Albertans.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan contends the NDP’s request does not go far enough. McGowan hand-delivered a letter to Copping’s office calling for all Albertans to have access to paid sick leave.
Currently, the province allows five days of job protected leave for workers who have been with the same employer for at least 90 days.
Albertans can also access 16 weeks of job-protected leave for long-term illness or injury, but as currently written, this leave only applies to quarantine, not to self-isolation, which is the recommendation of health authorities for people who have presumed or confirmed infections.
McGowan also said gig workers and contractors, who are not considered employees, should be protected with paid leave.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley and NDP Finance critic Shannon Phillips also warned the UCP’s proposed cuts to health-care staffing and nursing positions could exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis in the province.