Jim Stanford is a Vancouver-based economist and the director of the Centre for Future Work.
When COVID-19 hit, Canada’s laws regarding paid sick leave were very weak. In federally regulated industries, employers had to provide three paid sick days per year to workers with at least three months of service. Quebec required two days (also after three months), and PEI just a single day (but only for workers with five years’ continuous service). Other provinces had no requirements for paid sick leave at all.
For a brief period, Ontario also mandated two days of paid leave as part of Kathleen Wynne’s Bill 148. But Premier Doug Ford derided that legislation as “an absolute job killer,” and cancelled the policy shortly after taking office. But it turned out that pandemics are the real job killer: From February through May, 2020, Canada lost 2.7 million jobs (42 per cent of them in Ontario).
Workers who showed symptoms of COVID-19, or had been exposed to the virus, were ordered to isolate at home for two weeks. But for people in low-paid, insecure jobs (where employer-provided sick pay is rare), staying home could mean missing the rent or skipping groceries. Many workers felt pressure to keep working, potentially contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
So the federal government rolled out new COVID-related income support programs, including the Canada Sickness Recovery Benefit in September, 2020. This was aimed at workers who contracted COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus. This past spring, provinces such as Ontario and B.C. brought in temporary sick pay programs, which agreed to reimburse employers for up to three days per worker.
On this score, other industrial countries were much better prepared than Canada for a pandemic. Most OECD economies already required two weeks or more of paid sick leave, so COVID-19 health orders could be readily accommodated. The pandemic revealed that Canada’s failure to provide this basic protection not only imposed significant burdens on workers, but also was a menace to public health.
We all hope the end of the pandemic is in sight – although continued variants (such as Omicron) may postpone that dream yet again. When the pandemic does end, will Canada revert to denying workers pay when they are ill or potentially exposed to disease? That’s a recipe for disaster in a future health emergency. And even for garden-variety diseases (such as seasonal flu), the evidence is strong that denying sick pay leads to increased contagion of colleagues and customers, reduced productivity (including “presenteeism,” where people show up at work but can’t perform their duties), and, ultimately, increased time lost to illness.
Accordingly, the federal government recently introduced legislation to expand paid sick leave in federally regulated industries to 10 days per year. B.C. announced at least five paid days per year as of Jan. 1. Other provinces (including Ontario, whose temporary program expires on Dec. 31), are still debating the matter.
There’s a clear scientific reason public health officials ordered two weeks (or 10 working days) of isolation for those contracting or exposed to COVID: that’s the time required to outlast the virus’s contagious stage. A sensible sick pay program must support absences of that length.
Employers complain that 10 days would be too expensive – akin to handing out two weeks of extra pay to each worker every year. But the impact on total business costs would be much more modest. Workers would not qualify for 10 days until they have accumulated sufficient seniority. About half of workers already get coverage through voluntary or negotiated company plans; for those employers, the incremental cost would be small or non-existent. Moreover, not all eligible sick days are used: On average, Canadian workers take 3.7 days off per year for illness. And not all sick workers need to be replaced: in many jobs, the work simply waits until they return, meaning there is no incremental cost.
Considering all these mitigating factors, a new study from the Centre for Future Work estimates that a 10-day sick leave plan would increase total business costs by just 0.21 per cent in B.C. That would not be noticeable amid the many other dramatic changes roiling Canada’s labour market and supply chains. It also doesn’t consider the benefits to business of reduced absences, improved staff retention and customer confidence. And it pales in comparison to the costs of prolonging pandemics.
It would be reckless and short-sighted to return to a preCOVID “normal” that compelled sick workers to show up, regardless of the risk to others. Our new-found awareness of public health means workers must be supported to stay home when necessary. Every province should follow the federal government’s lead, and the example of other industrial countries, and implement permanent requirements for at least 10 days of paid sick leave.
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