Lost wages, lack of transportation among barriers for lower-income Manitobans who need COVID tests

Carrie Friesen isn’t just worried about missing work if she gets COVID-19. She’s worried about losing hours if she has to get tested — again.

“I can’t afford to go get tested. It may be a free test, but who’s going to pay my bills?”

Losing work — and pay — to get tested is a dilemma facing many young people working in the retail and hospitality industries, Friesen said, and it stands to get tougher as cold and flu symptoms become common. 

Friesen, 21, has already gone for COVID-19 tests five times, and the difficulties she’s had just getting to a test site illustrate how hard the pandemic is on lower-income earners.

Friesen now works two part-time retail jobs. She was laid off as a disabilities support worker after her third COVID-19 test because she kept having to take time off, she said.

She can’t afford car payments since she was laid off, so she relies on the bus now, but Winnipeg Transit tells people with symptoms not to ride.

When she developed symptoms again, cab companies also turned her down for a ride to a test site.

“Getting there was impossible,” she said.

Carrie Friesen, left, was helped by her mother Jaime Bernardin, who took a day off work to drive her daughter to a COVID-19 test site in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Carrie Friesen)

Ultimately her mother, Jaime Bernadin, who lives in Portage la Prairie, agreed to drive into Winnipeg. A single mother who works two jobs to support her two other children, Bernardin took a day off of work to shuttle Friesen to a test site last Friday.

The results were in the following Monday, but by then Friesen’s employer had already arranged backfill for her. She lost out on several days of pay. 

“It makes it super difficult to even want to go get tested because there’s no one supporting us,” she said. “That’s really frustrating.” 

Demand for tests rising

Long lines form outside Winnipeg’s only drive-thru COVID-19 testing centre on Main Street Tuesday morning. Access to screening locations remains an issue heading into cold and flu season for those who don’t drive or live within walking distance of a drive-thru site. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Demand for tests has surged along with cases in Winnipeg in recent weeks. 

After accounts of hours-long wait times and lines of vehicles stretching several city blocks near Winnipeg’s lone drive-thru test site, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday the province would “dramatically increase capacity.”

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Dynacare will soon supply a series of mobile testing sites in Brandon, Dauphin, Portage la Prairie and Winkler. The first mobile site was unveiled in Winnipeg this week. 

The first clinic did 75 tests on opening day, Friesen said, just five shy of its estimated daily capacity.

That mobile site is also stationary in a West End parking lot for the time being, which isn’t much help to people like Jessica Stevens, who would normally take the bus.

When Stevens’s family of three came down with COVID-19-like symptoms in March, they felt stuck: she says they rely on public transit and were told by Health Links to wait out their symptoms at home rather than expose others on the bus.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says it offers free rides to screening sites in a special taxi set up with protective shields. Fewer than 10 people have used it each day and it’s arranged through Health Links.

“Transportation is offered in unique circumstances where an individual is truly unable to make their way for testing on their own,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to CBC News, citing lack of money, car or family help as possible reasons.

Stevens burned through her sick days in the spring. Now, with cold and flu seasons on the way and no surefire way of ruling out COVID-19 without a test, she worries the need to go to a screening site or isolate will escalate — for her, her boyfriend and her kindergarten-age daughter.

“We definitely work paycheque to paycheque — our bills and everything is always budgeted — and now with COVID … oh my goodness,” said Stevens, who works a part-time job and is struggling to find another.

Difficulty accessing screening sites, limited testing hours and 56-hour average turnaround times for a result mean precariously employed workers face heightened financial pressures heading into fall, experts and advocates say.

‘One paycheque away from real trouble’

Manitoba’s minimum hourly wage went up 25 cents on Thursday to $11.90. That’s the third lowest by province in Canada, and many of those jobs can’t be done from home, said the executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

“Many are one paycheque away from real trouble,” said Kate Kehler. “Those people were the hardest hit by COVID because the approach from the provincial government seems to expect people to have savings, and that simply isn’t possible for a minimum wage worker.”

The federal government just announced a new system that will provide two weeks of emergency wages for those who don’t have paid sick days from their employer.

But Kehler suggests that especially for low-wage workers who haven’t been able to work consistently lately, with the cold and flu circulating they will be faced with a high-risk proposition: assume it’s not COVID-19 and tough it out at work, or risk slipping further into debt.

“Until we have a system in place where there is paid sick leave for everybody, people are going to go ahead and go to work,” she said.

“Not all employers are as concerned with the greater good as others and so then they’ll say, ‘I don’t care if you have a sore throat, get into work or you don’t have a job.'”

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