Is paid sick leave needed to avoid ‘public health hazard’?

Network calls for universal, permanent legislation to standardize rules in Canada

Is paid sick leave needed to avoid ‘public health hazard’?
Many workers are left to choose between staying home and missing work or going into work sick.

A network of healthcare providers in Ontario is calling for universal, paid sick leave legislation that would standardize the rules throughout Canada.

The Decent Work and Health Network (DWHN) says that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of such a benefit, otherwise workers are left to choose between staying home and missing work.

A separate survey found that financial stress could see workers back at work despite feeling ill.

This means they could lose salary when they are sick, or risk going to work despite being sick to ensure they can support their family.

“Paid sick days are an essential protection for all workers both during a pandemic and on a permanent basis to protect against other infectious illnesses like influenza,” says DWHN.

However, paid sick leave is only legislated in Quebec (two days) and Prince Edward Island (one day after five years of employment), and for federally regulated works (three days). All other workers rely solely on workplace policies for access to paid sick days.

Amid the pandemic, the Yukon government is providing a rebate accessed at the employer’s discretion to provide paid sick days while federally, a temporary program is set to provide 10 days of income support for COVID-related leave for workers without paid sick days.

“Rather than closing the gap in paid sick days during the pandemic, governments across Canada have responded by introducing unpaid, temporary leaves that are restricted to COVID-related reasons,” says DWHN.

Earlier this month, the Manitoba government called on the federal government to finalize details of the Pan-Canadian Sick Leave Program.

Difference in access

More than half (58 per cent) of workers in Canada have no access to paid sick leave – climbing to 70 per cent of workers earning less than $25,000 annually, says DWHN. And workplaces with precarious jobs have become hotspots for COVID-19, including long-term care homes, farms, meat-processing plants, nail salons, and grocery stores.

“The pandemic has clearly established precarious work, including the lack of paid sick days, as a public health hazard. These gaps are especially dangerous for workers with chronic health or immunocompromised conditions, and for persons with disabilities, seniors, children, and patients who rely on workers to provide care and support.”

Among several recommendations, the group says all provincial, territorial and federal jurisdictions must update their employment standards to require employers to:

  • provide at least seven days of paid emergency leave on a permanent basis
  • automatically provide an additional 14 days of paid emergency leave during public health emergencies

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