Paid sick leave: Why three days? Why now? Why?

OPINION: Ontarians are getting a limited sick-day benefit not because the experts said so but because the government is in political peril
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 28, 2021
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announced the province's sick-day program at Queen's Park on Wednesday. (YouTube)



Why three days, and why now? Those are the two most obvious questions to ask the Ontario government regarding its new proposal, unveiled on Wednesday at Queen’s Park, to guarantee a measure of paid sick leave.

The answers: politics, and politics.

Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet has for months been urging the federal government to improve the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which pays workers for any sick time they have to take due to COVID-19. But Ottawa simply cannot solve the problems that come with the Tories’ insistence on using a federal program to do what should be done by provincial labour legislation. That’s been said by public-health experts, unions, mayors, and councillors, and it was largely dismissed by the provincial government until two weeks ago.

So what changed? The federal budget was released, sure — but we can’t pretend we would be seeing the same behaviour that we’ve seen from the Ford government in the past week were it not for the incredible political crisis the government has been mired in since Ontario’s third lockdown began earlier this month. If the Progressive Conservatives collectively (and Ford personally) were in a stronger political position, they’d likely still be resisting calls for paid sick leave, and for the same reasons they dismantled what paid sick leave Ontario had when they took power in 2018: they’re small-government conservatives who don’t appear to believe workers need these kinds of protections.

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But why three days? I’m not a federal-politics reporter, but it seems pretty clear from recent events that three days was the price federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland demanded in order for Ottawa to accede to Ontario’s requested CRSB improvements.

“When Ontario is ready to mandate sick leave in provincially regulated businesses, as we have done for federally regulated businesses, we will be there to help," Freeland’s spokesperson told reporters on Monday. This requires some translation, as Ontario has legislated sick leave; it simply isn’t paid (and won’t be until the government amends the Employment Standards Act). So either Freeland was asking Ontario to do something it’s already done, or her office was asking the province to match the current number of sick days that federally regulated workers are guaranteed under the Canada Labour Code.

That’s three days — the same number of days Labour Minister Monte McNaughton proposes to grant Ontario workers until September 25, when the CRSB is slated to expire.

So it seems we’re getting a paid-sick-leave plan generally because the Ford government is trying to extricate itself from a serious political crisis; and Ontario workers are getting three days specifically because, in this moment of crisis, the federal government had the leverage to extract that much from the premier’s office.

Will it work? Not as well as it should, because it should have been introduced a year ago. It’s difficult to know what to say when McNaughton claims, as he did on Wednesday, “This is a game-changer, and this will save lives.” This is one of those times when it’s almost more charitable to assume that a politician is lying, because McNaughton’s statement is absolutely damning of this government if it’s true. If it will save lives in April 2021, then it would have saved lives in April 2020. Nearly 8,000 Ontarians have died of COVID-19, and introducing paid sick leave now — after the crest of the third wave, if we’re lucky — means that, if McNaughton’s statement is true, some fraction of those thousands of dead might have been saved but were not.

For my part, I think McNaughton is telling the truth, and I think he’s correct: Ontario workers will be more protected with these measures than they are now, and some will have an easier time making the decision to stay home when they’re sick. Three days of paid sick leave won’t, on their own, cover the total amount of time that a worker who catches COVID-19 is likely to be sick for, but the combination of those three days plus an enhanced CRSB (which will deliver up to 20 more) will substantially improve the welfare of essential workers. Paid sick leave was never going to be a silver bullet, but this meaningfully pushes the dial in the right direction.

It comes too late for the dead, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when your public-health policies seem to be determined by partisanship and not the facts of a global pandemic.

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