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British Columbia Premier John Horgan arrives before the budget speech in Victoria on Apr. 20, 2021.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Provincial sick-leave programs, touted as an essential tool in the fight to control the novel coronavirus, are lightly used, according to data from Ontario and British Columbia.

As case counts mounted in the spring, intense pressure was brought to bear on provincial governments – particularly Ontario’s – to introduce publicly subsidized sick days, in part to improve upon a federal program that provided some compensation for sick days, but only after workers had missed at least half of their scheduled work hours.

The temporary provincial programs that were eventually introduced – including those in Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba – were also supposed to address other deficiencies in the federal program.

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Under the provincial programs, employers have continued to pay wages to employees who take sick days because of the coronavirus, including for time off to receive or recover from vaccines. Then those employers are reimbursed, within limits, by the provinces. That approach was a major shift away from the federal program, which was criticized for forcing employees, rather than the companies they worked for, to apply for reimbursement after the fact.

The federal program proved so underused that the Liberals slashed 85 per cent of its funding in their April budget. And now the provincial equivalents have turned out to be just as undersubscribed so far, according to data provided to The Globe and Mail.

In Ontario, just $20.8-million out of a budgeted $216-million had been paid out as of Aug. 6, with the program set to expire on Sept. 25. But that is relatively robust demand compared with B.C.’s sick-leave program, which has spent just $900,000 since its launch in mid-June. Manitoba did not provide data.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said his province has not set a specific budget for its sick-leave program. He added that the goal was to ensure that any employee wanting to take a sick day would be able to do so. “We are meeting that objective right now,” he said.

In a statement, the Ontario labour ministry said about one-third of the more than 71,000 workers who have used the province’s sick-leave program did so to get vaccinated.

It’s possible that Ontario’s data doesn’t fully capture use to date. The ministry noted that businesses have up to 120 days to submit claims for reimbursement. In addition, the application process is being streamlined in mid-August; some employers may be waiting on that change, the ministry said.

But some observers believe there is a more fundamental problem – namely that lower-wage employees continue to worry about the repercussions of taking sick days, even if paid for by the government.

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University of Waterloo economics professor Mikal Skuterud said he had originally thought that the federal sick-leave program was being underused in part because the political debate over introducing provincial programs might have left the impression that no such benefits existed. “I don’t buy that any more,” he said.

Instead, he said, there could be a systemic reluctance among economically insecure employees in low-wage hourly positions to take sick days, for fear that they will later be penalized.

Chris Roberts, director of social and economic policy for the Canadian Labour Congress, agreed with the assessment that workers may be reluctant to take sick days because of worries over repercussions. He said companies unhappy with such absences could easily find relatively subtle ways to penalize their employees, perhaps by reducing their hours or by giving them less desirable shifts.

Both Prof. Skuterud and Mr. Roberts said an employer-sponsored sick-leave program could mitigate such worries by putting a company’s explicit stamp of approval on an initiative.

Ontario did institute such an approach in 2017, but the Progressive Conservative government reversed that measure after it was elected in 2018. B.C. is planning to introduce permanent sick leave in 2022, but has not yet indicated whether it will be publicly funded, as is the case with the temporary program, or whether it will be an employer-funded mandate.

On Friday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised to implement 10 days of employer-paid sick days for federally regulated workers. Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, wrote in a tweet that most federally regulated employers are unionized and already have sick leave programs, although some smaller companies such as interprovincial trucking firms could struggle with the costs of implementing such a program. The Liberal campaign did not immediately respond to a query on how many federally regulated workers would receive additional sick days under the party’s proposal.

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