COVID-19 Puts Sick Leave in the Spotlight

3 minute read

The pandemic has put the conditions faced by many of Canada’s low-wage workers in perspective. Major Canadian retailers, producers, and manufacturers told us over the last year that their workers were essential. We’ve witnessed that at grocery stores, warehouses and long-term care homes across the country. We have seen the importance of those workers to our daily lives and our economy. Meanwhile, only some companies have stepped-up to ensure their employees don’t lose essential pay for COVID-19 related absences.

Sadly, too many of these essential workers are getting sick and far too many are dying from COVID-19, because of the nature of their work. After nearly 14 months of living in an upside down world, we cannot continue to ignore the evidence that the virus has been spreading because sick people continue to go to work because they couldn’t afford not to. 

“We’ve had 21,000 COVID claims from people who believe they have gotten COVID as a result of the workplace,” said WSIB chair Elizabeth Witmer last week. Twenty-eight deaths in Ontario were directly linked to exposure in the workplace. The warnings were there early last spring when 950 staff of Alberta Cargill Meat Processing plant–half its workforce–tested positive for COVID-19. It was North America’s largest single outbreak to date. 

Now, Ottawa has doubled the number of paid sick days provided at the federal level, and Ontario finally moved forward with its own system for both full-time and part-time workers. Workers in Ontario are now offered $200 a day through a more “seamless” system. The program is meant to be flexible, allowing workers to continue receiving pay from their employers for sick days due to COVID-19, with the provincial government reimbursing employers through the Workplace Safety and Injury Board. But is three sick days enough to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces, families and communities?

“We’re having people isolate for a 14 day-period, so people need to be able to do that as safely and securely as possible,” said Tim Deelstra, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers 175 and 633. He called for a 14-day paid sick leave program at the provincial level in Ontario – adding that workers should be provided with seven paid sick days even after the pandemic has subsided. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has consistently batted down calls for a provincial sick leave program over the last year by pointing workers toward the federal program. Problem is the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit is hard to access for low-income, precarious and migrant workers. It also only provides $100 per day. If you make $14.25 dollars an hour and work an eight-hour day, you’re losing out on $70 by the end of the work week. That alone helps to explain the low uptake on the federal program. 

While Ontario’s three-day paid leave has been criticized as inadequate, it does represent an about-face by the provincial government. Premier Ford even apologized to pandemic victims for not bringing it in sooner. Perhaps Ontario and other provinces will go further in the face of ongoing pressure and cover even more sick days through established workplace safety boards. 

The pandemic laid bare the importance of ensuring minimum standards for everyone to help strengthen our society and protect us all. It’s incumbent on governments to work out a way to establish standards for reasonable and effective paid sick leave programs. 

Hopefully what we’ve learned will pave the way for a permanent country-wide paid sick leave system – administered at the provincial level. It’s a way to solve the painful dilemma faced by the many Canadians who live pay cheque to pay cheque and can’t afford to stay home sick. 

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