Canada has done a good job curbing the COVID-19 curve, and after a months-long shutdown many people are eager to resume regular routines. In order to keep transmission rates low while we reopen, many regions are implementing preventative public health measures, such as mandatory masks in indoor public spaces. Paid sick days and paid sick leave are an essential component of a safe re-opening, to protect workers and mitigate future outbreaks.
On May 25 the Prime Minister promised, by agreement with the NDP, to negotiate with the provinces to ensure “as we enter the recovery phase of the pandemic, every worker in Canada who needs it has access to ten days of paid sick leave a year.” He also promised the government would look at “other mechanisms for the longer term to support workers with sick leave.” $1.1 billion was announced for a national sick leave program on July 16th, but we’re still waiting for implementation details.
And, waiting puts our re-opening efforts at risk. Jurisdictions around the world that have recently reopened like Germany, Singapore, Beijing and more recently parts of the U.S including California continue to grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks. Melbourne, Australia recently went back into lockdown after a rise of COVID-19 cases after public health measures began to lift. Canada should take heed. The likelihood of future outbreaks within our own jurisdictions, even as overall cases decline must be accounted for as the government restarts the economy. For existing and returning workers, additional protections like paid sick days must be put in place to slow future transmission rates.
Different forms of sick leave
The terms paid sick leave and paid sick days are often used interchangeably when referring to paid time off from work for an injury or illness. However, the terms do vary slightly in meaning. Paid ‘sick days’ are often used to refer to the individual days a worker can take off in an emergency or a short-term situation. Paid ‘sick leave’ is often used to refer to time off over a longer period of time. Across Canada, paid sick days have largely been left to the responsibility of the employer and/or union collective agreements to provide. Paid sick leave is more complex and can involve both employer and government-provided income support.
Workers in Canada encounter a patchwork system of leaves for illnesses. Most workers fall under provincial and territorial employment standards, which sets out mandatory minimum job protected leaves that employers must provide. Workers in federally regulated industries, such as airlines, banks, and telecommunications, are governed by similar legislation at the federal level. In total there are 14 jurisdictions (10 provinces, 3 territories and the federal level).
Sick days range between 3 to 7 days in most provinces and 12 days in the Yukon and Saskatchewan. Only the federal jurisdiction, Quebec and PEI require employers to provide paid sick days, ranging from 1 to 3 days. Ontario briefly had 2 emergency paid sick leave days and 10 job protected emergency days, but the Progressive Conservative government replaced them with three unpaid days for personal illness. BC first introduced 3 unpaid sick days in March. Some jurisdictions also combine sick days with other family or personal emergency days.
Employment Insurance offers 15 weeks of sick benefits for workers who qualify, but there are significant coverage gaps and delays in processing payments. EI is not currently designed to cover a short term illness or injury such as a three day flu or two week case of COVID-19.
In the absence of legislation or a universal program, access to paid sick days is very unequal. According to Statistics Canada data, in 2019 less than 40% of illness or disability leave was paid. David Macdonald with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives crunched the numbers, and found that higher wage workers with permanent positions were far more likely to have employer paid sick leave than lower wage or more precariously employed workers.
Given the glaring gaps in sick days coverage across the country, at a time when no proven medical treatments are available for a potentially life-threatening contagion, deciding on the best course of action for implementing sick leave is an urgent challenge. In order for sick leave to be effective in preventing transmission of COVID-19, workers must be able to afford to stay home. This means that paid sick days must be paid, seamless and accessed in a timely manner.
Who is responsible?
Employers benefit when sick workers are able to stay home, because this limits the spread of illness to other co-workers and customers, and allows workers to recover faster. This is why unions often negotiate employer paid sick days in collective agreements, and why campaigns spearheaded by the Workers’ Action Centre, $15 and Fairness, the Decent Work and Health Coalition have been calling for changes to labour legislation that would see the implementation of employer paid sick days long before the pandemic. These campaigns stress the importance of sick days not being a temporary measure and the need to update labour legislation, with an emphasis on redesigning EI to include more workers, to create a system that better responds to the realities of the labour market and current situation. They view paid sick days as an extension of workplace safety protocols, and are laying the groundwork for a ‘new normal’ that ensures paid sick leave for all workers in the future. They are pushing for 7 permanent paid sick days and an addition to 14 paid sick days during a pandemic.
In a pandemic, we all benefit when sick workers can afford to stay home, especially service workers who are less likely to be covered by existing programs. This was the primary purpose of CERB, providing financial support which enabled some workers to safely stay home instead of seeking work during stay-at-home orders. This is one reason why provincial governments have been pushing the federal government to cover the cost of 14 paid sick days instead. Some economists argue it’s reasonable for the federal government to cover the cost during the pandemic since the benefit of workers being able to stay home is more widely shared during a public health emergency such as this one.
Below, we examine three options for implementing national paid sick days and/or leave:
Employer Paid Sick Days
Employer paid sick days would place the responsibility of providing paid sick days on the employer by mandating it through employment standards legislation in all 14 jurisdictions. Employers, not the public would incur the cost of providing paid sick time off. This option would still allow for long-term paid sick leave to be provided by other pre-existing federal and provincial programs.
Employer paid sick days is a critical principle for several reasons:
Speed of payment
Employees need uninterrupted pay. When sick days are provided by an employer it eliminates gaps or wait times that could occur if the worker has to apply for benefits from another source. This removes the disincentive to take needed sick days out of fear of delayed income.
Health and Safety Incentives
If employers must cover the cost of sick leave, they have a stronger incentive to ensure compliance with preventative public health requirements, and to ensure employees can stay home while sick, or after having come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. This is a particular concern with large companies that make massive profits, yet fail to provide their employers with decent working conditions.
Consistency and Fairness
While nearly 50% of employers offer some type of paid sick days, the lower your wage, the less likely you will have any form of paid sick days. Precarious and gig workers often have no workplace protections. It would be unfair to subsidize employers who have thus far failed to provide paid sick days.
It will be a challenge to move on expanding employer paid sick days in the midst of a pandemic/recession. Employers and others will argue that it is not financially feasible to provide an adequate number of paid sick days during this already financially challenging time. Most provinces have not considered, let alone implemented enabling legislation, or put in place effective enforcement mechanisms. A program that temporarily refunded employers who have paid sick leave to workers, similar to the wage subsidy, would preserve some of the benefits of employer paid sick leave while ensuring all workers are covered during the pandemic.
EI Sickness Coverage
EI currently offers 15 weeks of sickness benefits to workers that have accumulated 600 hours of insured employment. The federal government campaigned in the last election on extending EI sick benefits to 26 weeks but this has yet to happen.
There are a number of reasons why EI sick leave does not work well for the current pandemic. This system is not geared to leaves of less than two weeks, and so will not help workers who need to stay home and quarantine for a few days while waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test. The current structure of EI excludes a large number of workers, especially precarious and self-employed workers. EI only provides workers with 55% of their previous wage, leaving lower wage workers especially financially insecure. And finally, workers often have to wait several weeks before they receive benefits.
All of this means that there is a significant financial risk to workers of taking sick time. It makes the decision to follow public health advice and stay home impractical for many. This is especially true for high-risk ‘essential’ workers in low wage jobs such as personal support workers, food processing, and food production.
Still, there are potential advantages to using the Employment Insurance system to introduce a new short-term sick leave plan. The federal government could, for example, add an EI Part III that reimburses employers for up to 14 days of paid sick leave. This program would be initially funded by the federal government, but could transition to a cost share agreement with an employer model after a set period of time. Since it is federally funded, it could cover all workers, not just those that have paid into the EI program and accumulated sufficient insurable hours. It could cover 100% of a worker’s wage, provide a flat rate like CERB, or be progressively tiered like personal income tax rates. A version of this proposal was recently proposed by the NDP.
Federal transfers to the provinces “National sick-pay program”
Similar to the emergency wage top up provided by the federal government to the provinces for essential workers, the federal government could transfer funds to provincial/territorial governments to provide workers with paid sick days through amendments to provincial labour codes and employment standards. The federal government would then enter into a cost-sharing agreement with provinces to ensure that workers are covered. This option creates a sick leave program that is fully covered by the public. A version of this proposal was recently proposed by the federal government, after receiving pressure from the NDP. However, on July 16 the federal government announced they would be providing a temporary federally-funded 10 days sick leave program for those who aren’t covered by their employer.
Most employer provided and government mandated sick days don’t kick in right away, a worker has to have been with their employer for a certain length of time before they qualify for any sick days at all. Governments should consider suspending such qualifying periods during COVID-19.
Since the start of the pandemic, migrant workers have experienced high rates of COVID-19 infection. Outbreaks among migrant workers in Ontario, Alberta, BC, Nova Scotia and Quebec once again highlighted their precarious working and living conditions. Reporting on the matter has exposed the unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and workplace intimidation on part of employers. The seasonal nature of their work, coupled with precarious immigration status has made these workers vulnerable. Among other measures, it makes sense to address some of these risks by extending employment standards rights and access to paid sick days and government programs to this group.
In order to protect the public’s health during this pandemic, paid sick days must: cover all workers, but especially lower wage workers who must work in close contact with co-workers or customers; and, be paired with changes in employment standards at the federal and provincial levels of government to ensure that sick notes are not required and there is job protection and anti-reprisal protections for all workers.
Paid sick days must become a permanent feature of the workplace across Canada. During the course of the pandemic, the option of implementing government-paid sick days would help ensure timely coverage, while allowing businesses and employers to recover. However, once the pandemic is over paid sick days will benefit employers the most, so any government subsidy should only be temporary and replaced by empolyer-paid sick days. The ideal policy would help transition our workforce from the current inadequate patchwork system to a more robust sick leave system for all workers.
Beyond implementing paid sick days, governments should focus active health and safety enforcement efforts on high risk workplaces, where workers come in close proximity with co-workers or clients. Finally, the federal government should lead by example and make changes to the Canada Labour Code to ensure that all federal jurisdiction and government employees, including contractors and temporary employees, have access to at least 14 paid sick days.