Employers in British Columbia will be required to pay workers their full wages for up to three days for COVID-19-related leave, as a stepping stone toward a permanent sick-pay program starting in 2022.
Under the proposed law, the provincial government will reimburse employers up to $200 per day for each worker who takes pandemic sick leave, if the workplace does not already have an existing program. No doctor’s note will be required, but employers can ask an employee for “sufficient proof” that the worker needs to self-isolate.
B.C.’s pandemic pay requirement will be in place once the bill is passed into law, and will remain in force until the end of the year. Starting on Jan. 1, 2022, the law will transition to a minimum standard for paid personal illness and injury leave, but the details have yet to be worked out.
Roughly half of B.C. workers do not have sick-pay benefits. For low-wage jobs, such benefits are rare: The B.C. Federation of Labour estimates that 90 per cent of workers earning less than $30,000 a year currently lose pay if they are off sick.
The provincial government began drafting sick-pay legislation last year shortly after the pandemic was declared, but it shelved the initiative in favour of lobbying Ottawa to set up a national program. Meanwhile, public-health officials raised the alarm that too many workers are unable to take sick days because of the loss of wages, leading to workplace transmission of the virus.
On Tuesday, Labour Minister Harry Bains tabled the proposed law. “We know that the most important and effective way to prevent transmission or COVID-19 is to stay home and self-isolate. This law is good for workers, good for businesses and will help our economy recover faster.”
The legislation is designed to bridge the gap for workers between when they first feel sick and when they can access the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). In addition, workers who contract COVID-19 on the job are eligible for workers’ compensation.
Premier John Horgan maintains the federal program is still inadequate, and says he will continue to urge Ottawa to improve the benefits. “I can’t hide my disappointment with the lack of a robust standard by the federal government,” Mr. Horgan told reporters on Tuesday, noting that the CRSB has a budget of $2.6-billion, but only $400-million has been paid out.
“That doesn’t speak to the lack of need for the program,” he said. “That speaks to the inadequacy of the construction of that program.”
Laird Cronk, president of the BC Federation of Labour, said he was glad that the B.C. NDP government “finally” has moved, and said the transition to a permanent sick-pay program will be historic for the province. But, he warned, workers who become sick from COVID-19 can still face devastating financial consequences, especially vulnerable front-line workers.
“We have seen from the data in the last couple of months that workplace transmissions are taking place, that workers were going to work while ill,” he said. “This is predominately front-line, low-paid workers who can’t afford to stay home, disproportionately women and racialized workers.”
Mr. Horgan defended the limited support offered this year, saying his government will take the next few months to consult with stakeholders on the best permanent plan. “Is it sufficient for the moment? I believe it is. Will that be improved through the consultation? I certainly hope we do.”
Business leaders welcomed the change, noting that taxpayers, not struggling small businesses, will pick up most of the cost this year.
“This proposed legislation will help British Columbians by filling the gaps in the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, while recognizing the extraordinary challenges faced by small- and medium-sized businesses,” said Bridgitte Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.
Currently, only Quebec and Prince Edward Island have long-term sick-pay provisions, which at best provide three days a year of paid leave. The government of Ontario will provide workers with three paid sick days to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic until the fall.
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