Passing the buck on paid sick leave

Health experts say paid sick leave is key to limiting spread of the disease, but it’s a hot potato for employers and government

Passing the buck on paid sick leave

After more than a year, Canada is still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. A small part of the population has been vaccinated, but the number isn’t enough to make a significant difference yet. One of the biggest sources of outbreaks is workplaces where people have to physically go to work and health experts have been pushing for measures to reduce the risk of workplace transmission, including paid sick days.

Having workers who might be infected and need to isolate at home can help reduce the spread of the virus. But whose responsibility is it to cover that? It seems that nobody really wants to, despite its importance.

Ontario, in particular, has been a battleground over paid sick days. Health officials on the province’s science advisory table have been recommending paid sick days since the early days of the pandemic. Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet have resisted implementing such measures, voting down multiple opposition bills proposing some type of paid sick days. Finally, under much pressure from the opposition, health experts, and the general population, the Ontario government introduced legislation offering up to three days of paid sick leave.

Combatting the spread

The idea of paid sick days is to allow an employee who is feeling sick or may be contagious to stay home and continue to be paid by the employer. This way, the employee doesn’t have to decide between taking care of themselves for a few days and getting paid — and it also avoids the risk of spreading something communicable to co-workers. A couple of years ago, a study linked workers showing up to work while sick to a spike in flu-related doctor visits. The same could apply to COVID-19, but with potentially more dangerous and even deadly consequences.

A fear of losing their job could cause one in five working Canadians to go to work even when they are coughing, sneezing, and feeling sick, according to another study.

Paid sick leave has economic benefits for employers, says an Alberta-based labour organization leader.

An absence of paid sick leave disproportionately affects lower-paid workers, as they often can’t afford to give up a few days’ pay. As a result, they may decide to go to work even if they’re not feeling well. That’s why many workplaces with lower-paid workers in one place together — such as Cargill meatpacking plants and Amazon warehouses — have had outbreaks that have in turn fuelled community spread, including an Amazon facility employing 5,000 people in Brampton, Ont., that has been linked to more than 600 COVID-19 cases since October 2020, according to CBC News.

Ontario brings in new rules

It’s interesting to note that before the current Ontario government came into power, the province’s workers had been entitled to 10 days of personal emergency leave with the first two days required to be paid by the employer. When Ford became premier, his government replaced that with three days’ sick leave, three days’ family responsibility leave, and two days’ bereavement leave — all unpaid. At the time, worker advocates expressed concern that it could force some employees to go to work while sick — little did we know then how serious that could be.

However, Ontario’s new proposal for paid sick leave isn’t quite what health experts have been demanding. It allows workers to take up to three days off with pay for anything related to COVID-19 — such as getting tested, waiting for test results in isolation, or getting vaccinated. And while the employer must continue to pay the employee for those days, the government will reimburse employers up to $200 per day for each employee.

This is in line with what Premier Ford’s position on paid sick day benefits all along — he doesn’t want employers to bear the cost of reducing the workplace spread of COVID-19. His argument for many months was that Ontario didn’t need paid sick days because of the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), which provides $450 per week for four weeks to workers who miss 50 per cent of their work week due to isolation or falling ill with COVID-19.

However, the federal program is a bit of a different animal — it’s meant for workers who must isolate or are sick for a longer period of time. It can take time for workers to apply for the CRSB and then receive any money, leaving them with no pay until their application is approved. And if they end up testing negative and feel better, they return to work without getting the CRSB but they are still out a few days’ pay.

Regional differences

Before the pandemic, most Canadian jurisdictions did not have paid sick leave as part of their employment standards, although the Canada Labour Code requires federally regulated employers to offer at least three paid sick days per year. Early on in the pandemic, Yukon started providing a rebate to employers covering 10 days of wages for any employee required to self-isolate due to COVID-19.

More recently, Prince Edward Island launched a fund to help workers who are off sick and don’t have sick leave, while British Columbia announced plans to implement its own sick pay program. B.C. Premier John Horgan said Canada should have a national sick pay program, but mandated sick days generally fall under the employment standards umbrella, which is under provincial jurisdiction.

When it comes to preventing the spread of illness and supporting sick workers, paid sick days can be a useful tool. But whose responsibility should it be — the federal government, the provincial government, or employers?

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