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Premier John Horgan arrives to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a pharmacy in Victoria, B.C., on April 16, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government will introduce legislation on Tuesday to establish sick pay benefits, just three weeks after it learned that Ottawa would not expand its own program. That’s remarkably fast turnaround for legislation – but it has been a long year since Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry called for this change as an important tool to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The legislation could serve as a temporary measure to curb COVID-19 transmissions in the workplace, as Ontario’s proposed law is. Or the province could opt for permanent workplace reform, obligating employers to eventually provide a minimal number of paid sick days a year.

“We urge you to take this opportunity to lead the country and create an enduring legacy for generations to come,” an open letter to Premier John Horgan says, signed by 50 progressive employers last week.

Given the province’s foot-dragging on this issue since the spring of 2020, the Horgan government has not telegraphed a burning desire for the legacy option.

Currently, only Quebec and Prince Edward Island have 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, supplementing the existing federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

Dr. Henry has pushed for reform since the start of the pandemic, because COVID-19 was being spread in workplaces where low-wage earners faced financial hardship if they followed the advice of public health and stayed home if they felt sick. “It is an important part of workers having the agency to stay home when they’re sick. We know it’s an important part of preventing workplace outbreaks,” Dr. Henry said last week.

The province has balked at mandatory sick pay because it preferred to offload the costs onto Ottawa. Mr. Horgan said he had expected Ottawa to top up its existing program in the federal budget announced on April 19. When that didn’t happen, B.C. had to step up and figure out who will pay for new benefits, and whether those benefits should remain beyond the pandemic.

To Dr. Henry, it is an employer’s obligation to provide the working conditions that keep people healthy. “It is incumbent on the owners and operators of many workplaces to make sure that they keep all of their workers safe by ensuring that people who are sick are able to stay away and not pass it on and not transmit it within the workplace,” she told reporters.

The B.C. Federation of Labour calculates that roughly half of workers in B.C. do not get any paid sick leave at their jobs. Low-wage jobs are the least likely to offer sick pay benefits – just one in 10 workers earning less than $30,000 a year will collect wages if they stay home while ill.

The BC Fed is proposing that the province help fund up to 10 paid sick days now, but once the pandemic is deemed over, B.C. employers would be required to provide a minimum of three days, with permanent employees gradually accruing up to 10 days a year.

The B.C. Business Council supports measures that would help the province through the pandemic – with taxpayers, not individual businesses, picking up the tab. But the council argues that mandatory sick pay is a burden that many businesses cannot afford.

With 2,600 employees, the Vancity credit union is the largest employer to sign the letter to Mr. Horgan calling on B.C. to legislate sick pay. It provides up to 12 days a year of sick pay, but president and chief executive officer Christine Bergeron understands that many small businesses right now can’t afford to pay additional benefits.

“We serve many, many small businesses and we are very aware that they are struggling at the moment, and over the past year. We’re not suggesting that mandated paid sick leave should be a burden for them.”

But Tuesday’s legislation should be designed to transition to mandatory sick pay over time, she said.

Some small businesses have concluded that sick pay is good business. Denise Taschereau is CEO of Fairware Promotional Products, a small Vancouver-based company that makes branded merchandise. Her company already provides up to eight sick days annually for its 16 employees, and she cannot understand why such provisions are not mandated by law.

“COVID lays out the case to set some legislation in place for the long haul,” she said Monday.

“My hope is they go beyond the pandemic. It’s unfathomable, that you would want sick people coming to work.”

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