Paid sick leave could end up being least useful for those most in need

Advocates say it’s a vital tool in ending the pandemic. Doug Ford says it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. Is there an argument against paid sick leave?
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 19, 2021
Premier Doug Ford has rejected calls to legislate paid sick days. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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One of the joys of parenting that they don't tell you about: when your little ones get sick with random childhood illnesses, you get sick with random childhood illnesses all over again, too.

Years ago, not long after my daughter began going to daycare, I came down with, of all things, an ear infection. It had been decades since I'd had one, and I ignored it, thinking it was just a head cold. That lasted until I got out of bed one morning and quite literally faceplanted on the bedroom carpet — my sense of balance was gone. That rather undignified moment was just the beginning of a genuinely unpleasant few weeks. It turns out ignoring a bacterial infection doesn't make it go away — who knew?! — and I ended up with not only an ear infection, but also a throat infection and then pneumonia. My doctor eventually threatened to hospitalize me for fluids and IV antibiotics if I didn't start showing improvement; my immune system, thus shamed, finally rallied. After three entire weeks, I was able to resume normal activity.

At no point during this minor ordeal did I worry about missing a paycheque. I told my then-editor that I was quite ill, did what work I could from home during the worst of it, and was back to roughly normal productivity by the final week, though I stayed at home (as much out of weakness and exhaustion as any particular concern that I might infect my colleagues). There was no form to fill out, no paperwork. Just semi-regular updates to my boss and team. When I was able, I went back to work, and it was like I'd never left.

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I've been mindful of this experience when listening to the debate regarding paid sick leave in Ontario. The opposition parties, as well as many public-health experts, are saying it's a slam-dunk way to fight the pandemic. Premier Doug Ford, in an interview with Ann-Marie Mediwake of CTV, said that he wasn't going to "waste taxpayers' money" duplicating a program that has already been established by the federal government.

But my concern with the idea was something more fundamental: Would it actually, you know, work?

I phoned Professor Emeritus Wayne Lewchuk of McMaster University's School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics to talk about this and to ask that question. Find below a record of our conversation (as usual, of course, edited for length and clarity).

TVO.org: You've obviously been following the issue. Before we delve into the details, I'm just wondering where you stand overall — what's your big-picture read on paid sick leave in Ontario?

Lewchuk: It's long overdue for us to have it in Canada. We stand out compared to other advanced countries, particularly in Europe, for not having it. We're behind the game. It's an important aspect of an employment relationship. People need to be able to stay home and not bring sicknesses into the workplace. This is especially true during a pandemic, but from the standpoint of increasing productivity, it makes sense even without a pandemic. Do you want people coming to work with a flu? Or any other communicable disease? I don't think so! It's time to have this kind of benefit.

TVO.org: The federal government has created a program, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, to accomplish some of this. The program has been criticized for being cumbersome and stingy, but it does exist.

Lewchuk: It does, but there's a waiting period. And it's limited. Let's say you think you have COVID-19, and you get a test. You can be waiting a few days for that result. Two, three, or four days. Until you have a diagnosis, or until someone advises you to self-isolate, it doesn't apply. And even after you apply, there's a delay of a few days. And what if you're just ... sick? Doesn't have to be COVID-19. You can just be sick, even during a pandemic. The moment when people are worried they might have COVID-19, or maybe just a runny nose, is the moment you want them to be off — that's when they're most communicable.

TVO.org: I don't want to drag this into the realm of politics, but as you know, Premier Ford has said he's not interested in pursuing this, and he noted the federal program. Is there a downside? What's the case against paid sick leave?

Lewchuk: First, labour relations is within provincial jurisdiction in Canada. The federal government stepped in because of the pandemic, but this is in the provincial government's responsibilities. Look, it just simply makes sense. We want people to stay home when they're sick. We can talk about how to structure a program, but we should do it. And not just because of workplace productivity and efficiency, keeping illness out of workplaces. But a healthier population will reduce health-care-system costs, too.

TVO.org: You mentioned there how to structure the program. And that's important. During the first wave, even some very large business-advocacy groups came out strongly in favour of this ... if the government paid for it. And businesses have generally resisted added labour costs, obviously — for obvious reasons! But if the government was going to pay for it, they were open to it. From a perspective of economics, do we care who pays for it or how it's structured?

Lewchuk: It always matters for the person paying! [laughs] But it probably makes sense to have this paid for by the provincial government. The benefits of this, in terms of economic efficiency and productivity and easing the burden on the health-care system, will be broadly enjoyed by everyone. So it's reasonable for the government to pay the cost of this. It's simpler if employers pay for it. But it's probably fairer for the government to.

TVO.org: That's an interesting distinction. How would it actually work?

Lewchuk: It depends on the system we designed, but let's consider the European model. It's integrated into the employment-insurance system. So a worker applies. Or the employer pays it directly and then applies to be reimbursed. But the cost ends up coming from the government. That's a bit more cumbersome because there's someone applying, and someone doing the paperwork, so there are administration costs. It's simpler to just have the employer be obligated to pay the cost. But if it's going to be paid for centrally, this is the kind of system we'd need.

TVO.org: I wanted to speak to you specifically, Professor, because you're not simply an expert in labour, but in precarious labour. We are both white-collar knowledge-economy workers. If we have to take time off, we take it off. Minimal hassle. But that's a particular kind of privilege. If I miss a day, I'm not worried about alienating my boss.

Lewchuk: There's a simple way to understand this. Are you on salary or are you hourly? Or in the gig economy, are you paid by the piece, so to speak? If you are salaried, missing a sick day is like taking a vacation day. The work waits for you on your desk until you're back. If you're an hourly worker, a missed shift is missed income. Same for a gig worker. Missing work imposes a real economic cost, and that is an incentive to work even while sick. And as you were alluding to above, many of the gig workers or hourly workers are lower-wage workers. They're more vulnerable to begin with. Gig workers are a complicated area that we're just starting to address: Do they have an employer? If not, who'd pay for the sick leave? How would we calculate the wage? There are a lot of discussions around independent contractors that we don't have answers for yet. But yes, to your point, paid sick leave is a major issue for those who are precariously employed, and that often means lower-income.

TVO.org: Well, exactly. That's what I'm getting at. I understand the theoretical appeal of paid sick leave. I'm sold on the concept. But it's going to be easy for a guy like me to seek it and get it, and I don't really need it. The people who really need it are going to have the harder time accessing it. And it's not just about the direct wage. They are probably worried, if their work is precarious, about alienating the boss and not getting any more hours or shifts. So paid sick leave may end up being least useful for those most in need. Am I wildly off on this?

Lewchuk: No. You're absolutely right. And this is a larger problem with employment standards. We have written standards and obligations. But what we know from the research is that workers in precarious employment don't make a lot of use of those standards. They don't complain, for example, when they're not getting paid overtime. They don't complain when the employer is not providing the rest that they're supposed to, and for exactly the reason you suggest: they're vulnerable. And they are afraid that if they do complain, they'll lose their job. Most of the complaints from those kinds of workers, about violations of standards, come from workers who have already either been fired or quit, not while they're currently employed. So yes, this is a problem. I don't think every employer is going to be draconian about this. I think a majority would welcome it, since people wouldn't come to work sick.

TVO.org: This might be an impossible question to answer. I don't know if we have any data on this. But is there any way to even guess how effective paid sick leave would be at reaching even the most precarious workers?

Lewchuk: I don't know how we'd quantify that. Other employment standard stuff is a big deal — if you accuse your employer of not paying overtime, there are serious financial penalties attached to that. Plus the possible cost of owing many workers overtime. But a paid sick day's cost is limited to the cost of the sick day. So I would imagine employers would be co-operative. I can't quantify that specifically, but I think it's fair to say that I'd expect such a program to be of real benefit to many precariously employed workers.

I think we also need to recognize the stress in workplaces. Not just related to the pandemic. A shift to precarious work is adding to stress. Not having sick days piles it on. You have workers saying, look, I have no right to take a sick day, and if I do, my employer might just axe me. That's stressful. And moving to paid sick leave, as we said above, wouldn't matter for everyone if precarious workers feared using it. But it would begin legitimizing paid sick days. It would gradually make it more acceptable. And that would also begin conversations about other kinds of leave, for family care or medical obligations. It would bleed over. We could talk about leave to care for others or bereavement. We can do better accommodating workers as members of society and members of families.

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