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A sign for Loblaws in Toronto on Dec. 13, 2021.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

As the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps through the Canadian population, front-line retail workers face a confusing question: Can I afford to stay home if I’m sick?

Many Canadian provinces require people to isolate for five days if they experience COVID-19 symptoms. But while provinces such as B.C. and Ontario have mandated some paid sick days, and federal programs such as the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit also help with financial support for missing work, retail employees who deal with the public every day do not always know what is available to them. And some say employers should do more to make policies clear to their workers.

“They’re reliant on a process that has been quite fluid. Everything is changing because of Omicron,” said Chris MacDonald, assistant to the national president of Unifor, a union that represents workers at various retailers in Canada. “ … There certainly has been confusion.”

That was the case for one worker at a Loblaws store who recently caught COVID-19. The Globe and Mail is not disclosing the person’s identity because they are concerned about facing punishment for speaking publicly. After a positive rapid antigen test, the worker asked if they would be covered for the shifts they missed while isolating. A manager said they would not be paid unless they could provide a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis, even though it has become difficult for those outside high-risk groups to get tested, and paid tests can be expensive. The manager did not tell the employee about the provincially mandated sick days, and they stayed home without pay.

Loblaw Co. Ltd. L-T requires proof of a test to qualify for the pay-protection program it introduced to ensure workers would not lose pay for COVID-related absences. “We have evolved the program for those who cannot get a PCR test, to company-provided rapid tests,” Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas said in an e-mail, adding that changes to the testing requirement have been made since the new year.

Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton, said he’s seen the confusion among workers first-hand, and it is unacceptable for employees not to be fully informed.

Companies have a responsibility to tell employees about the government support available, in addition to being clear about their own sick-leave programs, Mr. McNaughton said. (The Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit mandates up to $200 payment per day for three days of an employee’s absence related to COVID. Employers can apply to the province to be reimbursed. B.C. has also mandated paid leave, up to five days.)

“We have workers that ask the ministry – and they ask me when I see them – about what policies are in place, especially during the Omicron wave that we’re going through,” Mr. McNaughton said. “I think employers have the moral and legal responsibility to keep workplaces safe. And that means telling workers what’s available to them.”

Grocers have been at the forefront of concerns about support for workers throughout the pandemic, because of the scale of their operations, and because the essential services they provide have continued to drive traffic to their stores – even as people curtail other outings when case numbers rise.

But some major grocers won’t publicly explain their sick-leave policies. Spokespeople for Empire Company Ltd. EMP-A-T – which owns store chains including Sobeys, Safeway and FreshCo – did not respond to multiple requests for information over three days before declining to answer questions on their policies for sick workers. Costco Canada spokesperson Martin Groleau declined to answer questions, and Save-On-Foods did not respond to requests for information.

Walmart Canada WMT-N does provide paid leave for a COVID-19 diagnosis or isolation, spokesperson Adam Grachnik said in an e-mail. Isolation time follows each province’s guidance. “If symptoms persist … we are flexible and work with the associate on additional time away,” Mr. Grachnik wrote.

Metro Inc. MRU-T has disability benefits that cover some employees, and a financial assistance program specific to COVID-19 for those not covered by disability. For the latter, staff must first access temporary Employment Insurance benefits for sick leave, and then the company’s program tops up EI support to cover 95 per cent of workers’ missed pay.

Dollarama Inc. DOL-T said its sick days can vary from zero to five depending on provincial regulations.

Many retailers have adapted their sick-pay policies to cope with COVID-19. But Unifor’s Mr. MacDonald said the pandemic highlights the need for permanent change.

“In our entire union of 315,000 people, retail workers have the least access to sick pay of any sector,” he said.

Many retailers resist publicly discussing supports for staff. Spokespeople for Lululemon Athletica Inc. LULU-Q, Leon’s Furniture Ltd. LEFUF, YM Inc. (which owns store chains including Suzy Shier, Urban Planet, Sirens and others), Gap Canada GPS-N, Home Depot Canada HD-N, Lowe’s Canada LOW-N, Best Buy Canada BBY-N, Staples Canada SPLS-Q and Toys R Us Canada declined to answer questions or did not respond. Reitmans Canada Ltd. RET-X spokesperson Patricia Robichaud said in an e-mail that the company’s policies “meet or exceed” government requirements, but declined to provide specifics. Roots Corp. chief financial officer Mona Kennedy wrote in an e-mail that staff who work more than 30 hours a week get paid sick days, but the company had “no more information to share” on the number of days or policies for those who work fewer hours.

Indigo Books & Music Inc. IDG-T provides up to 10 hours of paid sick time each quarter, covers time off for taking a COVID test and waiting for results, and pays for up to 14 days’ leave after a diagnosis. Once the pandemic is over, the company plans a new policy of 24 hours of paid sick time per year.

Aside from pandemic measures, sick pay is generally rare for retail workers paid by the hour – but there are some outliers. IKEA Canada already gave workers eight to 12 paid personal days a year; for COVID-19, the company waived the usual waiting period for new hires to access those days. TJX Canada TJX-N, which owns Winners, HomeSense and Marshalls, has added more paid days for employees who are sick or have to isolate for other reasons. Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. CTC-T provides sick pay at corporate-owned stores such as Sport Chek and Mark’s, but dealer-owners set their own policies at Canadian Tire stores.

Aritzia Inc. ATZ-T chief executive officer Brian Hill said he sees a more generous policy as a competitive advantage. The company has provided paid leave to anyone missing work for reasons related to COVID-19 – in some cases for significant periods Mr. Hill said in an interview.

“We think we’ve done as good a job as any supporting our people, and that’s why we haven’t had the same labour problems that a lot of other companies had for the last 12 months,” he said. “ … We’ve found that our teams are even more loyal than they were prior to the pandemic.”

With a report from Chris Hannay

Editor’s note: Indigo Books & Music Inc. provides up to 10 hours of paid sick time each quarter. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information provided by the company.

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