Across the country, renewed provincial restrictions have been enacted with the goal of containing a seemingly out-of-control, variant-fueled third COVID-19 wave. But public health officials, labour advocates and the public alike are asking why provincially legislated employer-paid sick leave is not on the table. Fifty-eight per cent of workers report having no employer-paid sick leave benefits; and 74 per cent of those without paid sick leave earn less than $25,000/year. Staying home when sick could have major financial consequences for those who can least afford it.

Many provincial leaders have correctly pointed out that paid sick leave measures are already in place under federal programs. Income support for those who are sick because of COVID-19 has largely been a federal priority, with the provinces setting job-protected leave in case of illness. As a result, there is a patchwork of federal income supports and provincial job protection laws across Canada, which must be brought into a coherent set of policies for sick workers. In the immediate term, five days of provincially legislated, employer-paid sick leave would reduce the burden on sick workers and give them the peace of mind to remain at home.

Workplace transmission is an important driver of caseload growth. Essential and frontline workers – groups that include a disproportionate number of women and racialized Canadians – are at higher risk of contracting and transmitting the virus. Many employers offer paid sick days for their employees either as an employment benefit or through collective agreements, but coverage is far from uniform.

At the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation, we investigated the pan-Canadian assortment of employment laws, existing benefits and special COVID supports that might impact a worker’s decision to stay home if sick. As it stands (figure 1), only two provinces offer legislated paid sick days: Prince Edward Island offers three days and Quebec offers two days.

Paid COVID-19 sick leave

Most workers who feel unwell face a complex decision regarding whether they should stay home from work. They need a combination of legislated job protection and income support because supports in place leave sizeable coverage gaps. The federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) is a stopgap benefit worth $500 for one week of work missed due to COVID-19 related illness, quarantine or isolation.

But the CRSB has three clear shortcomings:

1) It is not always easy to access: the CRSB is administered through the Canada Revenue Agency via its website. It is fairly straightforward to set up, but requires an access code to be physically mailed to your household. While the CRSB typically takes three to five days from application to benefit distribution, a week or more may be tacked on to this timeline if applicants have not previously registered for online accounts;

2) Income supports are not available immediately: In practice, CRSB often arrives a week after a claim and pays back wages lost in the prior week.

3) The size of income supports (a fixed amount) does not match wages lost: $500/week through CRSB works out to less than the minimum wage in many parts of the country. For workers living paycheque to paycheque, a week of unpaid work, even if back-paid by the CRSB, and the bureaucracy required to access benefits may be enough to force sick workers to go into work.

Assuming applicants qualify for CRSB and apply on a Monday, they may receive payment the following Monday, which will compensate for a week of lost wages. Eligible workers can access the CRSB for one to four weeks. Those sick for longer than four weeks may qualify for sickness benefits under federal Employment Insurance.

As it stands, COVID-19 sickness supports are in place at the federal level, but access and awareness are key challenges. A time-limited, provincially enforced minimum standard of five paid sick days would take the complexity out of the decision to stay home. Employees would get paid through their employer as usual. The federal CRSB benefit could be transferred to provinces or employers directly rather than employees. This would reduce the individual bureaucratic burden of accessing benefits and would guarantee that benefits are more than $500/week.

Provinces need to make this immediate fix to fill the gaps in our income support programs and curb the spread of COVID-19. In the wake of the pandemic, we need to improve the coordination of the disjointed provincial job-protection laws and federal income supports for short-term sick leave. The federal government and the provinces must create a system that removes the patchwork of programs, making income supports easy to access and rapidly available as needed. The federal government must explore how the necessary security measure for accessing online accounts can be expedited or changed to ensure accessing benefits does not present workers with yet another tough choice.

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Paisley Sim
Paisley Sim is a Research Associate at the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Her experience includes working for former Alberta premier Rachel Notley and as special adviser to Alberta's minister of justice. She holds a Master of Public Policy from McGill University.

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