Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
One of the clearest things health officials and public policy-makers learned at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic was that sick people were easily passing the virus to others in their workplaces. If the past year has been filled with unknowns, how to clamp down on that spread had a straightforward solution: Make sure sick workers can stay at home and get well without worrying about losing their pay.
But here we are, 13 months in, and only Prince Edward Island and Quebec mandate employers to provide sick pay. Prince Edward Island requires employers to offer one day a year and Quebec requires two. Employees in federally regulated industries, such as banks and railroads, are entitled to three paid sick days.
The issue is now hammering governments of very different stripes. After steadfastly refusing to mandate sick pay, Conservative Premier Doug Ford of Ontario announced this week his province would double the $500 per week pay on offer through a federal program as long as Ottawa agreed to administer it.
But in British Columbia, Premier John Horgan blamed the federal government for leaving workers without the benefits. Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Horgan and his cabinet ministers have avoided clashing with Ottawa over policy, but on Monday, Mr. Horgan said his government was expecting measures in last week’s federal budget.
They didn’t come.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of disappointed people, and I’m among them,” Mr. Horgan said Tuesday.
“We worked really hard. We were the lone voice last summer on this question. We received commitments from the federal government that they got it and they did, they put in place a program. Unfortunately that program was unwieldy. ... So we’re circling back to take charge of that issue and we’re going to deliver it for the people who need it.”
Mr. Horgan indicated British Columbia will now need to come up with its own plan. The Ontario approach, he said, simply builds on an inadequate federal program.
The federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit provides sick leave for up to four weeks to Canadians across the country, but the take-up has been far less than Ottawa initially projected. The federal government estimated in November that the benefit would provide nearly $5-billion in benefits over two years, yet slashed that forecast to just $738-million in the April 19 federal budget.
These critics also say the federal sick benefit program offers too little and takes too long to send cheques to workers who must apply for support after the fact, meaning too few are making use of it.
Many doctors say the punishing third wave of COVID-19 that is straining Ontario’s hospitals is being driven by transmission in workplaces where staff cannot work from home. In January, health officials in Peel Region, west of Toronto and home to a high concentration of factories and distribution centres, said a study of nearly 8,000 people with symptoms of what could be COVID-19 showed that 25 per cent reported to their jobs between August, 2020, and January, 2021. Eighty people went to work despite a positive test for the virus.
In British Columbia, Justine Hunter reports that 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 are proof there are still workers on the job when sick, because they don’t get paid if they don’t work.
It’s been a topic for the NDP in Alberta for months, too, to no avail. This week, Leader Rachel Notley called on the province to 10 days of paid leave for workers forced to isolate.
Mr. Horgan said his government is dusting off plans that were roughed out last summer to build a provincial system through WorkSafeBC, the workplace health and safety regulator. He would not say when the new plan will be in place.
But Liberal critic Todd Stone challenged the Premier in Question Period on Tuesday, saying the NDP had fumbled a critical health care matter by leaving it to Ottawa.
“Last year the Premier said: ‘We’re prepared to go it alone if need be. ... We do have alternative plans in place.’ One year later, nobody has seen any plan from the Premier to fund sick pay. It wasn’t in the budget.”
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. “As we are in this deadly last stretch, and COVID is running rampant with the variants, we need this now.”
The BC Business Council agrees something must be done. It supports measures that are limited to addressing financial support strictly for COVID symptoms, but not with businesses shouldering the costs.
“If you put this cost on to small business, it will hasten their insolvency,” president Greg 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 Doug Ford, John Horgan, union and business leaders in British Columbia all agree something must be done. But after more than a year, all are still figuring out exactly what and how.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.