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An employee at Neal Brothers picks products at their warehouse and office in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Nov. 17, 2022. The company says it has offered employees paid sick leave for years.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

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 match a new federal sick-day law that comes into effect next month.

For more than two years, labour and health care groups have urged governments to set minimum numbers of paid sick days, so workers don’t have to choose between staying home – and losing wages – or going in to work sick. But few governments have listened.

“During the pandemic, it became very clear to everyone who was not an essential worker how bad things were for essential workers,” said Deena Ladd, executive director of Workers’ Action Centre, a non-profit group that advocates for low-wage, undocumented and migrant workers. “But all those learnings have not materialized in policy changes. Nothing has been fixed.”

Canada’s overall approach to paid sick leave is not cohesive, because of a patchwork of different labour laws across provinces. Most provinces require employers to allow for some unpaid sick leave, but few require that time off to be paid.

In Quebec, workers are entitled to two paid sick days by law, and that 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 became a catalyst for labour advocates, unions and health care 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, particularly 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 consequence 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 extended government funding to temporarily cover lost wages for workers who were sick with COVID-19 or needed to isolate because of it. The programs used public money to ease the burden on employers, who ordinarily finance paid sick days out of their own pockets. But the funding has already expired, or will soon.

PEI’s 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 over the lifetime of the program – expires March 31. To date, the Ontario government has not said if it intends to extend the policy.

New federal legislation requires employers to provide their workers with 10 permanent paid sick days a year. It takes effect Dec. 1, but it only applies to federally regulated sectors, such as banking, telecommunications and interprovincial transportation. That covers just 6 per cent of Canadian employees.

Since the legislation was first tabled in late 2021, Ottawa has met with provinces and territories multiple times in attempts to urge them to implement 10 paid sick days. In a February meeting with premiers, federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan called his provincial counterparts “a pragmatic group of people” who understood the argument but had yet to start moving.

Angella MacEwen, an economist with the Broadbent Institute, said Canada lags behind most other developed countries – with the exception of the United States – on paid sick days and short-term disability allowances. “So for most people, it is incumbent on their employer to provide these benefits,” she said.

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An employee at Neal Brothers vacuums their office in Richmond Hill, Ont. The company says offering paid sick leave has helped it retain employees.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Groups pushing for more paid sick days say provinces have shied away from legislating them because of the pushback they face from employers, particularly pro-business lobby groups.

“Large companies in manufacturing or logistics, for example, who employ many low-wage workers, care less about high turnover. So they are not willing to bear costs of giving workers paid time off,” Ms. Ladd said.

Workers, employers and the public seem to have starkly different views on paid sick days. An Abacus poll conducted in May this year found that 73 per cent of respondents wanted more paid sick days.

The B.C. government legislated paid sick days in response to a study that found 75 per cent of workers would support five paid sick days. That same study found that only 28 per cent of B.C. 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-days law and urged provinces not to follow in Ottawa’s footsteps.

Jasmin Guénette, CFIB’s vice-president of national affairs, said that at the very least Ottawa should have introduced a sliding scale for how much leave an employer would need to offer, based on their number of employees. The CFIB has long argued that employers can’t afford paid sick days, especially considering the financial turmoil many of them endured during the pandemic.

Michelle Eaton, vice-president of public affairs at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said Ontario should continue reimbursing employers for sick days, because of the ongoing threat posed by COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. It is not clear whether the chamber supports paid sick days. In an e-mail, Daniel Safayeni, the OCC’s vice-president of policy, said it is conducting a survey of members on the issue to determine “where the gaps in coverage exist.”

But some employers have tried to make the case that offering paid sick leave can be a good business decision.

Liliana Camacho, a director of the Better Way Alliance, a group that promotes ethical employment in small enterprises, said paid sick leave can lead to more productivity, because it gives employees time to recover from illness. And she said it can cut down on workplace illness by slowing the spread of viruses.

“It’s not that they don’t get sick,” Ms. Camacho said. “They’re going to get sick. The difference is … they don’t have to choose whether they’re going to work and get paid or stay home and recover.”

Chris Neal, a co-owner of the Toronto-area snack-food maker Neal Brothers Brand, as well as Neal Brothers Distribution, a transportation company, said he has offered employees paid sick leave for years, including those recovering from surgery, or illnesses such as cancer.

He said it has 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 regardless.

“Peter and I are human as well,” he said. “We’ve had our shares of injuries, illnesses, and family situations where we’ve had to step away from the business for periods of time over the years, and we continued to draw our salaries. Why would we treat our team members any differently?”

There is little data on exactly how many Canadian workers do get paid sick days, mainly because it’s difficult to account for the growing number of part-time and gig workers in the country’s labour force. A Statistics Canada report from 2020 said just over 50 per cent of workers who had worked in the past two years had access to paid sick leave in their last jobs. Among temporary workers, only 40 per cent were paid while taking sick leave.

According to a 2022 report from the Decent Work and Health Network, a non-profit organization made up of health care workers, almost 60 per cent of workers in Canada do not have paid sick days. That proportion is 70 per cent among workers earning less than $25,000 a year, according to the report.

Workers and labour advocates argue that an absence of paid sick days can be devastating, because employees are forced to make wrenching trade-offs between their health and their livelihood.

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 she was on the job. It remained embedded in her palm for days, and she was not paid for the time she took off to deal with her injury. The Globe is not giving her last name, or the name of her employer, because she fears professional repercussions for talking publicly about her job.

She works six days a week, but her hours aren’t guaranteed. She wasn’t eligible for Ontario’s three paid sick-leave days, because her injury was not COVID-19-related. Having to deal with sickness, on top of the precarity of her employment, has driven her to despair. She said she is scared of falling ill, even though she knows it’s almost an inevitability in her line of work.

Michael Hurley, vice-president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said a lack of paid sick days can be particularly devastating for part-time or casual workers, who are increasingly propping up the country’s overburdened health care system.

“We went from relying on part-time workers to cover sick days or vacations of full-time employees, to now relying on part-time workers to deliver significant amounts of care,” he said.

In an ideal world, he added, there would be a greater number of full-time jobs, with employers offering benefits that include paid sick leave. But in the absence of that, he said, governments need to step in.

Follow Vanmala Subramaniam on Twitter: @vanmalasOpens in a new window
Follow Chris Hannay on Twitter: @channayOpens in a new window

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