Most provinces have not made permanent changes to sick leave laws during the pandemic, despite a sharp rise in respiratory illnesses and pressure from Ottawa for provincial governments to align with a new federal law on sick days which will come into effect next month.
For more than two years, unions and health care groups have been urging governments to set a minimum number of paid sick leave, so workers don’t have to choose between staying home – and losing their pay – or coming to work sick. But few governments have listened.
“During the pandemic, it became very clear to anyone who was not an essential worker how bad things were for essential workers,” said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Center, a group in nonprofit that advocates for low wages, undocumented and migrant workers. “But not all of these learnings translated into policy changes. Nothing has been corrected. »
Canada’s overall approach to paid sick leave is inconsistent, due to a patchwork of different labor laws across provinces. Most provinces require employers to allow some unpaid sick leave, but few require that such leave be paid.
In Quebec, workers are entitled to two paid sick days by law, and this was true even before the pandemic. Ontario briefly required employers to give workers two paid sick days, but that law was scrapped by Premier Doug Ford shortly after he took office in 2018.
The pandemic has become a catalyst for labor rights advocates, unions and medical professionals to push for more progressive sick leave laws. But, for the most part, permanent legislative changes have not taken place, and paid sick leave remains a rarity for Canadians, especially those in blue-collar jobs.
Last year, British Columbia became the only province to institute five permanent paid sick days, a legislative change that emerged as a direct result of the pandemic. In Prince Edward Island, workers who have been continuously employed for at least five years are entitled to one day of paid sick leave.
Some provinces have extended government funding to temporarily cover lost wages for workers who were sick with COVID-19 or had to self-isolate because of it. The programs have used public money to ease the burden on employers, who usually fund paid sick days out of their own pockets. But the funding has already expired, or will soon.
The PEI COVID-19 Fund. for workers ends Dec. 31 and Ontario’s — which reimburses employers up to $200 a day for up to three sick days per employee for the duration of the program — expires March 31. To date, the Ontario government has not said whether it intends to extend the policy.
New federal legislation requires employers to provide their workers with 10 permanent paid sick days per year. It comes into force on December 1, but it only applies to federally regulated sectors, such as banking, telecommunications and interprovincial transportation. This only covers 6% of Canadian employees.
Since the bill was first introduced in late 2021, Ottawa has met with provinces and territories several times to try to urge them to implement 10 paid sick days. In a February meeting with premiers, federal Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan called his provincial counterparts a “pragmatic group of people” who understood the argument, but had yet to begin to to move.
Angella MacEwen, an economist at the Broadbent Institute, said Canada lags behind most other developed countries – with the exception of the United States – when it comes to paid sick leave and disability benefits. of short time. “So for most people, it’s their employer’s responsibility to provide those benefits,” she said.
Groups calling for more paid sick leave say provinces have been reluctant to legislate it because of the backlash they face from employers, especially pro-business lobby groups.
“Large manufacturing or logistics companies, for example, which employ many low-wage workers, care less about high turnover. They are therefore unwilling to bear the cost of paid leave for workers,” Ms Ladd said.
Workers, employers and the public seem to have radically different views on paid sick leave. An Abacus poll conducted in May this year found that 73% of respondents wanted more paid sick leave.
The BC government legislated paid sick days in response to a study that found 75% of workers would accept five paid sick days. That same study found that only 28% of BC employers would support the new law.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which lobbies on behalf of small and medium-sized businesses, opposed the federal sick leave law and urged provinces not to follow in Ottawa’s footsteps.
Jasmin Guénette, vice-president of national affairs for the CFIB, says that at the very least Ottawa should have introduced a sliding scale to determine the length of leave that an employer should offer, depending on its number of employees. CFIB has long argued that employers cannot afford paid sick leave, especially given the financial turmoil many of them have endured during the pandemic.
Michelle Eaton, vice-president of public affairs at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said Ontario should continue to reimburse employers for sick days, due to the continued threat posed by COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases. It is unclear whether the chamber supports paid sick leave. In an email, Daniel Safayeni, the OCC’s vice president of policy, said he was surveying members on the issue to determine “where the gaps in coverage exist.”
But some employers have tried to argue that offering paid sick leave can be a good business decision.
Liliana Camacho, director of the Better Way Alliance, a group that promotes ethical employment in small businesses, said paid sick leave can lead to greater productivity because it gives employees time to recover from work. ‘a sickness. And she said it could reduce work-related illnesses by slowing the spread of viruses.
“It’s not that they don’t get sick,” Ms. Camacho said. “They are going to get sick. The difference is…they don’t have to choose whether they go to work and get paid or stay home and recuperate.
Chris Neal, co-owner of Toronto-area snack food maker Neal Brothers Brand, as well as Neal Brothers Distribution, a transportation company, said he’s been offering paid sick leave to employees for years, including those who are recovering from surgery or illness. like cancer.
He said it helped him and Peter Neal – his brother and co-owner – retain their employees. And, he said, they think it’s the right thing to do, because as owners they would have the same benefit anyway.
“Peter and I are human too,” he said. “We have had our share of injuries, illnesses and family situations where we have had to be away from the company for periods over the years, and we have continued to receive our salaries. Why would we treat our team members any differently? »
There is little data on the exact number of Canadian workers who receive paid sick leave, mainly because it is difficult to account for the growing number of part-time and gig workers in the country’s workforce. A 2020 Statistics Canada report indicates that just over 50% of workers who have worked in the past two years had access to paid sick leave in their last job. Among temporary workers, only 40 percent were paid while on sick leave.
According to a 2022 report by the Decent Work and Health Network, a non-profit organization made up of healthcare workers, nearly 60% of workers in Canada do not have paid sick leave. This proportion is 70% among workers earning less than $25,000 a year, according to the report.
Workers and union rights advocates argue that the lack of paid sick leave can be devastating, as employees are forced to make heartbreaking trade-offs between their health and their livelihoods.
Winnie, a recent immigrant to Canada who works in a long-term care home in Toronto, accidentally cut herself badly with a piece of glass while at work. It remained embedded in her palm for days and she was not paid for the time she took to tend to her injury. The Globe does not give his last name or the name of his employer, because she fears professional repercussions for speaking publicly about her work.
She works six days a week, but her hours are not guaranteed. She was not eligible for Ontario’s three paid sick days because her injury was unrelated to COVID-19. The fact of having to face the disease, in addition to the precariousness of her job, drove her to despair. She says she’s afraid of getting sick, even though she knows it’s almost inevitable in her job.
Michael Hurley, vice-president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said a lack of paid sick leave can be particularly devastating for part-time or casual workers, who increasingly support the system. country’s overburdened healthcare.
“We have gone from relying on part-time workers to cover sick days or vacations for full-time employees, to now relying on part-time workers to provide significant amounts of care,” he said. declared.
In an ideal world, he added, there would be more full-time jobs, with employers offering benefits including paid sick leave. But in the absence of that, he said, governments must step in.