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The Canada Post Gateway facility in Mississauga, Ont., on Jan. 25, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The numbers are astonishing. One in four workers in Peel Region – the Toronto suburb that is the warehouse capital of Canada – have gone to work while showing symptoms of COVID-19, according to a recent study by Peel Public Health.

The findings partly explain why the Greater Toronto Area has been one of Canada’s worst hit areas in this pandemic, with Peel the hardest hit part of the GTA.

The problem is straightforward: Many Peel residents work in the dozens of warehouses and distribution centres that form the region’s economic backbone, thanks to the numerous multilane highways that cut across it, and its proximity to Toronto Pearson Airport.

The jobs are considered essential, and rightly so. The things these workers are shipping, receiving, processing and packaging are the unseen backbone of vital services, from supermarkets to online shopping. Your life is virtual because their work isn’t.

These workplaces can become sites for the mass spread of the COVID-19 virus unless all the right precautions are taken. The most important precaution? Infected people not coming to work.

But many employees don’t have access to paid sick leave. If they take a couple of days off to get a COVID-19 test and isolate while awaiting the result, they could be docked a couple of days’ pay, or worse. Their choice is stark: go to work while sick so as to collect a vital paycheque, or stay home and suffer a financial penalty for the sake of the greater good.

That’s why a lot of people in Peel – and no doubt across Canada – are going to work when they’re sick.

It’s one of the reasons workplaces are, after long-term care homes, the second-leading source of recent outbreaks in Ontario.

So how are Ottawa and Ontario responding to this obvious driver of the pandemic? The feds and the province are dickering over who should do something about it.

The federal government insists that a program it created on the fly last summer to provide Canadians with 10 days of paid sick leave is up to the task. But however well meaning the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit may be, it wasn’t created with part-time shift workers in mind.

The chief problem is that the benefit is doled out in units of weeks, instead of days. A warehouse worker who needs to skip a couple of shifts has to apply for a week’s worth of the benefit, which comes to $450 after taxes. And they can only get the benefit twice during the lifetime of the program.

A part-time hourly wage earner could certainly make use of the CRSB if they test positive and need to quarantine for two weeks. But it doesn’t help the person who may need a couple of days off here and there throughout the duration of the pandemic to await the results of a COVID-19 test.

That would require paid sick days, of the kind most higher-wage workers already receive from their employers, as opposed to the extended sick leave provided by the CRSB. Ottawa says that’s a provincial jurisdiction, and strictly speaking, Ottawa is right.

But in Ontario, guaranteed sick days are a political non-starter for Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government. One of its very first acts after winning election in 2018 was to eliminate two paid sick days brought in by the previous Liberal administration.

Ontario instead argues that it’s up to Ottawa to modify the CRSB to make it more accessible, something Ottawa says it won’t do.

Both sides are missing the point. The need for paid sick days to entice workers to stay home if they’re showing symptoms of the virus and its variants should not be undone by a reluctance to change gears. A key tool for minimizing the pandemic is sitting unused because two levels of government won’t co-operate.

Ontario needs to mandate paid sick days on an emergency basis, for the duration of the pandemic. Leave the arguments for or against making this measure permanent until later. Ontario also needs to bring in more rapid testing for shift workers, so more people who are infectious stay home.

Ottawa needs to show similar flexibility, to help employers and employees. The CRSB should be improved so it fully supports low-wage shift workers across the country.

There is one issue, and one issue only: stopping the spread of COVID-19. Everything else is just dickering around.

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