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More than 50 B.C. businesses have been shut down under public-health orders this month because of COVID-19 transmissions in the workplace. Since April 8, officials have closed a car dealership, a dance school and the head office of a taxi company, as well as fitness clubs, retailers and manufacturers, in an effort to bring outbreaks under control.

The closings underscore a weakness in B.C.’s pandemic response: There are still workers on the job when sick, because they don’t get paid if they don’t work.

One year ago, Premier John Horgan met with business and labour leaders to discuss the pandemic and there was universal agreement that just telling people to stay home if they are feeling sick is not an effective message when workers have to carry the financial consequences.

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The risk was evident early in the spring of 2020, when WorkSafeBC closed a trio of poultry plants after more than 100 workers contracted COVID-19 on the job. In those low-paid, high-risk environments, many employees couldn’t afford to take time off sick.

It remains evident today in the current workplace exposures, which are widespread and helping to drive a surge of cases that now threaten to overwhelm the health care system.

“There is a universal agreement that no one wants any employee exhibiting signs of COVID to come to work, because it puts workers at risk, and it puts your business operation at risk,” Greg D’Avignon, president and chief executive officer of the Business Council of B.C., said in an interview.

The BC Federation of Labour estimates that half of B.C. workers – and 90 per cent of low-wage workers – don’t get paid for taking time off when they are sick.

“Whatever the cost would be for government, this is pennies on the dollar compared to shutting down businesses,” BC Fed president Laird Cronk said in an interview. “As we are in this deadly last stretch, and COVID is running rampant with the variants, we need this now.”

A year ago, the B.C. government, labour and business all ended up in the same place: Ottawa should take the issue on. Mr. Horgan became a champion for a national solution. By November, the federal government rolled out the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which provides up to $450 a week to eligible workers.

But there are delays in access, and not everyone who works qualifies.

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“The federal plan is woefully inadequate,” Mr. Cronk said. “If the federal program had worked properly, that would have been ideal, but now I’m saying B.C. has to fill the gaps.”

Ontario’s Conservative government has come around to this notion: Last week, Premier Doug Ford pledged to bring in a paid sick-day program, after he acknowledged that it takes too long for essential workers to get payments from the federal government.

Mr. Horgan seemed to agree back in December when he told a news conference that he was ready to improve on the federal benefits. “We do know that the sick-pay benefit that we worked so hard with the federal government to establish has gaps and holes,” he said then.

When Mr. Cronk opened up the B.C. budget on April 20, he expected to see support for that commitment, but it wasn’t there.

The New Democratic Party government in B.C. had pinned its hopes on Ottawa moving to improve its sick-pay program. When the federal budget introduced on April 19 offered nothing new, B.C. didn’t have time to revise its own budget that was tabled the next day.

“The qualifying criteria and the amount of pay is not sufficient. I’m really disappointed the federal government didn’t deal with this,” B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said. “Now we are left with dealing with this issue.”

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The BC Fed wants make sick pay mandatory, with financial support from government to businesses during the pandemic. The business council supports measures that are limited to addressing financial support strictly for COVID symptoms, and not at their cost.

“If you put this cost on to small business, it will hasten their insolvency,” Mr. D’Avignon said, saying that thousands of businesses in the province are already folding because of the sustained conditions of the pandemic. “You should not be transferring a public health care cost on the back of employers.”

So the stakeholders agree on the problem, but there is no consensus on the solution. Mr. Bains says he will now launch a consultation process on what his government should do, and suggested it would require legislation – meaning it could be next fall before any changes are made. Meanwhile, nobody is winning when workers are getting sick and businesses are being closed.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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