In January 2018, Gloria Turney took three days off work after contracting bronchitis. She had access to two paid annual sick days, which had been recently legislated by the Ontario Liberal government.
Due to her low-paying and precarious job as a home-care personal-support worker, she couldn’t afford to take more time off. On day four, she says, she “was back at work, fighting bronchitis.”
In November 2018, the Ontario Progressive Conservative government repealed the labour legislation. Since then, Turney, who works with the elderly and people with disabilities, has been working without any paid sick days.
Her case isn’t unique. New research from the the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health reveals that 58 per cent of Canadian workers don’t have paid sick leave and that those with low incomes who work in precarious industries are less likely to have access to it. About 74 per cent of workers earning under $25,000 per year report not having any sick-leave benefits.
The issue of sick leave has received renewed attention since the arrival of COVID-19.
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On July 16, the Liberal government announced an allocation of $1.1 billion for up to 10 paid sick days, to be implemented at the discretion of provinces. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the program will run for the next six to eight months, although it’s unclear when exactly it will be rolled out. A spokesperson for the federal government spokesperson tells TVO.org via email that details “will be released following discussions with the provinces and territories.”
“We're not actually seeing anything come to fruition,” says Carolina Jimenez, a registered nurse and a coordinator for the Ontario-based Decent Work and Health Network, which has been calling for seven permanent paid sick days and 14 additional paid sick days during outbreaks of communicable diseases.
Jimenez also points out that the government’s program, which is temporary and accommodates only COVID-19-related leave, doesn’t cover other illnesses, such as the seasonal flu, which leads, on average, to 3,500 deaths and 12,200 hospitalizations in Canada each year. “What we need is permanent, employer-provided paid sick days for all, and we need them now,” she says. “Anything short of that would be a disservice to anyone putting their lives on the line.”
Hasan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, says that, while the federal government’s move marks an advancement for workers during the pandemic, he’d like to see a permanent solution whereby employers would bear the cost of paid sick days — something that would require changes at the provincial level: “It's a good thing for workers to have [protection], but the broader political effort is to get provinces and territories to change their legislation to make sure it becomes a feature of their labour code.”
Quebec and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces that mandate paid sick days, although the latter’s policy applies only to workers who have been in the same job for five years. Since September 2019, workers in federally regulated industries, such as banking, telecommunications, and railways, have also had three annual paid sick days.
Deena Ladd, from the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre, is concerned that a government-funded program could create barriers through application processes and evidentiary requirements. For instance, workers might have to apply for paid sick leave through a new provincial program and prove that the time off is indeed linked to COVID-19. She also questions how the process might work and the length of time it would take. “For folks who rely on their paycheque to be able to pay their bills on time, waiting an extra day or a week or two for a payment that may not even be approved is just not financially feasible,” she says.
The government’s temporary program will help protect workers from the virus, says Corrine Pohlmann, a spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses — but she believes there needs to be “further debate” before more permanent measures are introduced. According to Pohlmann, more regulations aren’t the answer, as most small businesses accommodate their employees, and any additional costs would be onerous — a CIBC study released in May found that 32 per cent of small businesses are concerned about their viability. “Most small business owners do everything they can to help their employees. They're much closer to their employees; they tend to know who the individuals are; they tend to treat them like family,” Pohlmann says. “And so, when they need to, they do everything they can to accommodate that time [off]. And when you start putting in rules and regulations and restrictions in that regard, that can sometimes have a negative impact on sort of that informal relationship that exists between small business owners and their employees.”
But not all small-business owners agree. Sam Conover — who owns a lingerie store in Toronto and is part of the Better Way Alliance, a coalition of small businesses that endorses the Decent Work and Health Network’s demands — says that, although the pandemic has badly hurt her business, commercial rent is a far bigger financial concern than paying for sick days. And, she notes, this is a public-health issue: “Having this mandated means that we're going to be able to get through this [pandemic] quicker.”
And Ladd says that research from San Francisco, which introduced a paid-sick-leave ordinance in 2007, suggests the cost wasn’t particularly burdensome for employers as workers typically only took three paid days off. Her organization would, though, given the tough business climate during the pandemic, support rebates for smaller businesses. “What we see in in other jurisdictions is that there are businesses with less than 15 employees or 10 employees that are allowed to ask for a rebate, to compensate them for paid sick days,” she says. “But I don't think it's as big [a cost] as everybody is saying. If you look at the studies done in jurisdictions where they've have paid sick days, you're looking at an average of three paid sick days that people take in a year.”
In the meantime, she says, workers in low-paying, precarious jobs without benefits or other protections are being forced to make desperate choices.
“Home-care workers live from paycheque to paycheque,” Turney says. “If you take [money out of that paycheque], you’ll be at risk of not being able to pay your rent, buy food, or take care of your family.”