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A woman leaves the Peter Lougheed Centre hospital in Calgary on April 9, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

What’s the economic value of a human life?

Workplaces are fuelling new COVID-19 case counts, and vaccine shortages are hampering efforts to stop the spread of the deadly disease.

Yet our provincial politicians are still dismissing the need for paid sick leave for essential workers who don’t have such coverage from their employers. They fête them as heroes, but forsake them in their time of need.

Public safety be damned.

Sure, women, racialized people, migrant workers and the working poor risk their lives to provide essential services to the rest of us. But if low-cost labourers realized their true economic worth, business models would collapse, right?

It’s unconscionable that our provincial legislators are still treating essential workers as if they’re economically expendable. Outbreaks are ravaging workplaces, including nursing homes, factories, warehouses, meat packing plants and grocery stores. And now new variants of the illness threaten to overwhelm the health-care system.

But nearly a year into this crisis, only two provinces, Quebec and Prince Edward Island, offer some form of meagre sick pay for essential workers. Our premiers need a reality check about this humanitarian crisis and the potential for more economic destruction before Canada’s stalled vaccination efforts get back on track.

Consider this terrifying statistic: Only 42 per cent of working Canadian adults have access to paid sick leave, according to a federal government report. Is it any wonder then that people are reluctant to stay home from work when they’re sick?

Doctors have repeatedly warned that paid sick leave is crucial to slowing community transmission, so any legislator who still believes universal sick leave is about big government has lost the plot of this pandemic -- and their humanity.

Sick pay is not about entitlements; it’s smart economic policy.

Stopping the spread is key to easing lockdowns. Simply telling vulnerable people to call in sick is unrealistic if they suffer financial losses for prioritizing their health.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who eliminated two days of paid emergency leave in 2019, is among those who need a mindset shift. His province is home to a number of COVID-19 hotspots, and big city mayors, medical professionals and ordinary residents are calling for a new paid sick leave program that provides workers with proper support.

“Paid sick day supports for workers who have COVID-19 or need to isolate because they may have been exposed to the virus will help support workers to follow public health guidance and support our essential businesses to operate safely, reducing community transmission of COVID-19,” Lawrence Loh, Medical Officer of Health for the Region of Peel, west of Toronto, said in a statement last week.

Even the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has changed its tune on paid sick leave. In December, it endorsed a private member’s bill from NDP MPP Peggy Sattler that would guarantee workers 10 emergency days per year, seven of which would be paid. The bill also includes provisions for an additional 14 days of paid leave during any infectious-disease emergency, while providing financial help for beleaguered small businesses. (The NDP plans to seek a unanimous-consent motion to pass the bill when the legislature resumes. If that motion does not pass, second reading will take place on March 9.)

“Public health and safety are priorities for us all,” the Chamber of Commerce said in its statement. “Ensuring people, particularly during a pandemic, can afford to stay home, is both the right thing to do and an economical thing to do.”

Mr. Ford should adopt Ms. Sattler’s ideas. His inaction on paid sick leave is a dereliction of duty. Labour laws are a provincial responsibility.

Essential workers should not only get sick pay if they fall ill, they should receive it when they take the time off to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine.

In the United States, companies such as Dollar General Corp., Instacart Inc. and Trader Joe’s plan to pay their workers extra to be inoculated. There’s no reason Canadian businesses can’t do the same. Sometimes, though, corporate responsibility has to be mandated.

Mr. Ford is right about one thing, however. The federal government should make further improvements to the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) as soon as possible.

Now that Ottawa has taken belated action to prevent vacationers from abusing the CRSB, it should redouble efforts to ensure the program meets the needs of the intended recipients.

Currently, the federal benefit provides up to $500 a week for two weeks for people who are sick or have to self-isolate. Not only is that a pittance, applicants face delays in getting the money.

The pandemic is exposing some severe labour-market inequities. Unsafe working conditions have no place in a G7 country. How many people need to die before our provincial and federal legislators are prepared to act?

Vaccines may be the path to normalcy, but universal sick leave holds the promise of shared prosperity.

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