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Labour Views: Emergency Relief

May 31, 2023

For the second year in a row, K'atl'odeeche First Nation and Hay River have been devastated by the effects of a natural disaster. Residents, many of whom had still not fully recovered from last year’s flooding, have just been hit by an out-of-control wildfire.

In 2021, the residents of Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River had to leave their homes to the mercy of rising floodwaters, and this year Fort McPherson experienced that same scenario.

Aside from immediate emergency expenses like food, transportation, and accommodations, most people who experience an evacuation take a huge financial hit in pay. Those who are unable to work remotely or in other temporary jobs are forced to use up leave banks or, if their employer does not offer paid leave, go without a paycheque.

Housing costs, taxes, and utility bills don’t stop when you are required to evacuate, even if you find yourself in the terrible situation of not having a liveable home to return to. Insurance is often slow and full of red tape – if you are lucky to have it in the first place.

All of this on top of a workforce still recovering from a global pandemic, where most workers did not have access to paid sick leave, and many saw their industries shut down entirely.

This is a growing financial burden for those who have lost pay through no fault of their own. Over the past few years, many of these NWT residents have long ago used up their leave banks or gone in the hole, and will not be able to take any time off for a long time.  As a body that represents many affected workers, the UNW has been hearing desperate stories from evacuees – both members and non-members alike.

For members, we do what we can, such as providing advice on what sections of their collective agreements might apply in such situations. We maintain communication with employers to ensure that they are holding up their end of these agreements. The UNW and PSAC Social Justice Fund have also contributed $180,000 over the last three years to the United Way NWT for their emergency response fund alone.

Many UNW members in the North contribute to the PSAC Social Justice Fund, as well as some UNW employers including, but not limited to, the NWT Power Corporation, the Village of Fort Simpson, the Town of Hay River, and the GNWT.  Many UNW members also contribute directly to the United Way through voluntary payroll deductions.

And while our union is ready and willing to continue contributing to the longstanding relationship with United Way NWT, it’s past time for the GNWT to be more proactive in protecting northerners from factors beyond their control.

Climate change is turning “once in a lifetime” storms, floods, heatwaves, and wildfire seasons into annual events. Deadly outbreaks are spreading faster and occurring more frequently.

The pandemic showed us all how unprepared employers were for its impacts on the workforce. Fires and floods are harder to predict and are just as devastating. What do you do when you can’t work because you have no workplace to report to? Who is responsible for ensuring you are supported and able to recover?

It seems that governments are happy to let residents do the heavy lifting – both literally, and financially. The amount that public institutions rely on non-profits and donations from the public says a lot about its priorities.

Everyone is already doing their part: private businesses and organizations make donations in cash and in kind; residents lend a hand and donate, open their homes, and volunteer; people who are affected take a financial loss and do their best to rebuild.

And don’t get me wrong, the generosity of northerners and our ability to pull together for those in need is what makes this such a great place to work and live. But continuing to rely on the goodwill of its residents is not a sustainable path for our government to take.

The GNWT needs to be more proactive by investing in public infrastructure and activities that minimize the impacts of natural disasters before they happen. This could be more money for communities to carry out fire smarting, or environmentally sustainable planning.

We need strong labour laws that protect workers from job insecurity or financial hardship – such as legislating paid sick leave, and paid leave for those whose livelihoods are directly affected by a natural disaster.

And while it was nice to see our government respond to our call for an emergency relief fund for lost wages last week, the $750 they are offering those who qualify is embarrassing. Recently evacuated Alberta residents are receiving over $1000 plus extra if they have dependents, and their cost of living is significantly lower than here in the North.

These payments – along with their commitment to match donations from the public – are still signs of a government reacting rather than planning ahead. By implementing smart policies and programs in advance, our government can protect workers before disaster strikes. By now, we’ve experienced enough of them that our leadership should know what’s needed.

In the midst of an emergency, people need to focus on their immediate needs and safety, and should not have to worry about their jobs or their paycheques.