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Front-line workers stage a 'die-in' protest to demand paid sick days for all workers, in front of the Ontario provincial legislature at Queen's Park in Toronto, on Jan. 13, 2021.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

It hasn’t even been a year since the business community pledged to stamp out systemic discrimination.

The police killing of George Floyd prompted executives to look inward and reflect on how their companies routinely fail Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC). The disadvantages they face go far beyond exclusion from the boardroom or senior leadership roles. As this pandemic is showing us again and again, BIPOC in low-level jobs are dying because their employers fail to provide them with paid sick days.

If business leaders are sincere about supporting racialized people, then they need to step up and offer sufficient paid sick leave to essential workers – whether it is legislated or not. Not only is it an urgent matter of corporate social responsibility, it is a test of their public commitment to eradicate systemic discrimination from workplaces.

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Business leadership is desperately needed because provincial premiers are abdicating their responsibility to workers. Ontario’s three paid sick days may be the best offer among the provinces, but it is an utter disgrace. (Details of British Columbia’s forthcoming program are still unknown. Quebec and Prince Edward Island are the only other provinces that offer some form of meagre sick pay.)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford himself has been self-isolating since April 20, much longer than the three days he is offering essential workers, after coming in close contact with a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19. Talk about flexing one’s privilege.

Mr. Ford’s barbaric game playing on paid sick leave throughout this pandemic – including his other ploy to shift what is clearly a provincial responsibility to Ottawa – should have galvanized the business community to protect their own people. Instead, many executives averted their gaze and kept their fingers crossed that Mr. Ford and other premiers would preserve the status quo.

Shame. This is a humanitarian crisis.

B.C. to create its own COVID-19 sick-leave program

Why billions in federal sick-leave benefits have gone untapped

There’s no denying that COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on racialized people, immigrants and low-income communities, leading to higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death.

Doctors have told us that structural racism is a risk factor for dying in this pandemic. Essential workers, many of them racialized people, are still struggling to get vaccinated in hot-spot communities even as new variants of the illness overwhelm their local hospitals.

As if living hand to mouth wasn’t degrading enough. Now this health crisis is crushing the lives of people who can’t afford to miss work if they fall sick, need to get tested, self-isolate or roll up their sleeves for a life-saving needle.

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Is this what a civilized society looks like?

Dr. Andrew Boozary, a primary care physician and executive director of population health and social medicine at the University Health Network in Toronto, calls it “systemic discrimination in motion.” There was a time we believed our doctors.

Mr. Ford has clearly learned nothing since last year when he was forced to retract remarks denying the existence of systemic racism in Canada. Will executives who’ve pledged to root out this scourge fill the leadership void?

They produce brochures and reports featuring smiling Black and Brown faces. But they’re meaningless if a company’s social commitment stops short of providing paid sick days to all workers.

If paid sick leave isn’t a matter of corporate social responsibility, then what is?

No one is disputing that small businesses need a taxpayer-funded subsidy to provide sick-leave benefits.

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But if a company is big enough to operate factories, warehouses, distribution centres or stores in multiple jurisdictions or pay out millions in executive bonuses amid a pandemic sales boom, then it can well afford to provide sick leave to essential workers and properly compensate them for the heightened risks they face during this pandemic.

Critics of paid sick leave argue that such health benefits will be abused. Nonsense. Marginalized people can’t afford to take such risks. They are acutely aware that society views them as economically expendable.

Remember how the business community rallied around investor John Ruffolo when he was injured in a horrific crash? They blew up the phones at a Toronto hospital to ensure that he received the best chance at recovery. Now business leaders need to ensure that their own people, essential workers, have an equitable opportunity to recover, protect their health and access medical care.

Death, destitution and despair are punctuating the lives of marginalized people. It’s time for business leaders to walk the talk on corporate responsibility and offer paid sick leave to essential workers.

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