“If you feel sick, please stay home.”

It is easier said than done for the majority of Canadians, especially those in lower paying precarious work. However, amidst a global pandemic, Canadian legislators and businesses alike have been hesitant to address this gap. Paid sick leave in most provinces would require little more than adding a line to existing legislation.

As much of the country remains in limbo with a reasonable although lengthy path towards herd-immunity vaccination levels, provincial governments remain steadfast against paid sick leave. Based on my experience legislating DIPV leave in New Brunswick, which allows those experiencing domestic or intimate partner violence employment security and paid time off, I find the political opposition to paid sick leave unsurprising.

Two provinces offer paid sick leave: PEI legislates one-paid-day per year, Quebec offers three days per year and federally regulated sectors get five days per year. These three examples are well below the current campaign for 10 days of paid sick leave. Of note, five provinces provide DIPV leave – B.C. is the latest province to implement as of March 2020.

According to a recent study by Corporate Knights, only 28 per cent of companies in Canada provide sufficient paid leave. Further, only about 10 per cent of companies increased their paid leave policies in response to COVID-19. Two-thirds of companies surveyed offered no paid sick leave at all.

Ten months into the pandemic with fewer financial options available, Canadians are experiencing an impossible decision: go to work with symptoms or stay home without pay. As documented by Public Policy Forum: “by September, Canadians began noticeably expanding their contacts in places of work.” Based on the reported spread in workplaces, including bringing a once virus-free New Brunswick zone to lockdown in January, workplace spread should be of primary concern.

With all points of reducing COVID-19 spread leading to suffocating workplace spread, why do provincial governments – those responsible for legislating in this area – seem so opposed to legislating paid sick days?

In New Brunswick, the biggest barrier faced in implementing DIPV leave was the position that, “we don’t mandate paid leave.” New Brunswick’s legislation guarantees five-unpaid days of sick leave, among various other leaves, but the idea of offering paid DIPV leave was deemed risky with potential unintended consequences. These mostly related to the impact on businesses.

On the other side, offering unpaid leave was deemed to be insufficient for the spirit and intent of the law. Because only two other provinces currently offer paid sick leave, this point of defence is likely being heard in legislatures across the country. The effect this could have on small business is a reasonably cited concern. At a time when many businesses are hurting because of COVID-19, it is reasonable to question added financial stress, especially when they are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

At the same time, those companies who had an outbreak inside their organizations would surely tell you the impact is worse on their bottom line. Further, there are exceptions that could be made to accommodate small business. For example, businesses with fewer than 10 employees could be exempt from providing paid leave, while the province could appeal to their good will to abide anyways. Providing an exemption to large businesses like fast-food franchises, food processing, or big box stores, is not reasonable. These organizations rely on low wage work, many have been prospering during the pandemic, and shouldn’t require workers to make a decision between showing up to work sick and paying their bills.

Political will is another barrier. In the case of DIPV leave in New Brunswick, the premier was committed to making it happen. This is not the case in many of the provinces hit hardest with workplace spread. Without the political will, a legislative amendment doesn’t even make it to the order paper. An asymmetry of power amplifies this challenge – low wage, non-unionized workers are at a disadvantage to the well-funded and organized business interest groups.

Finally, there is the ever-present call that people will “abuse the system.” This is a concern as old as entitlement-style policy itself, yet it is not clear that any evidence exists to support it. Indeed, when we examined the use of DIPV leave in the other provinces who had it, we were shocked by how few had taken it. Due largely to stigma, many avoid taking sick leave. Or they wait until they are so sick, they have to take it.

With COVID-19, by the time somebody is so sick they must take leave, they’ve already potentially spread the virus. Looking forward, we have seen how dramatically effective COVID-19 prevention measures have been on minimizing the spread of the flu this season.  While a far less serious ailment, the flu results in considerable loss of productivity and use of sick days. If we create a culture of staying home when sick, we may find paid sick leave saves employers productivity in the long run.

There are two other challenges worth noting in the face of the pandemic. The first is overcoming the assertion that paid sick leave should either be the responsibility of the federal government or that federal programs are already serving the need. Neither is true. While the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was in place, it may have reasonably provided aid for employees who needed to self-isolate or recover for one to three weeks. But it did not help those who needed to take time off while waiting for test results.

The other program is the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). Some business advocacy groups suggest that CRSB is sufficient. It is true that it may fill the gap of a one-to-two-week isolation period, but what about the common one- to three-day minimum turnaround for a COVID-19 test? Or waking up with a sore throat and opting to stay home, as requested by your provincial government? These are the gaps that persist without the provision of paid sick leave.

The second COVID-19 specific challenge is how to deal practically with a proposed temporary paid sick leave. A provincial government would need to go through the often lengthy process of amending legislation. Rolling back the changes would require a similarly difficult process.

Governments may also consider implementing through emergency acts, but this too would be messy, and perhaps outside the scope of what is possible. Moreover, both ignore the long-term potential benefits of a stay-home-while-sick culture, which in the long run is beneficial to everyone.

Paid sick leave is a reasonable and necessary response to the reality of COVID-19 spread in Canada. However, most provincial governments have weighed the perceived challenges and decided it is not a policy they want to implement. With a lack of political will and an easy place to pass the buck to the federal government, this sound policy is going nowhere fast.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Vadimvector

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Katie Davey
Katie Davey is the founder and host of Femme Wonk. She is also a policy lead at Public Policy Forum and a former advisor to New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant.

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