The federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) was always meant to be a temporary program to fill holes in workplace legislation. The time is right for implementing provincially-mandated, employer-paid sick days.
The second wave of the pandemic has caused provincial governments across Canada to tighten restrictions and/or reinstate lockdowns to curtail the spread of the virus. “Essential” workers in education and childcare, delivery, agriculture, healthcare and food stores, are still required to work in-person, and have been heavily relied on to get the rest of the public through the pandemic. Often during their commutes and workdays essential workers are not afforded the same protection that public health restrictions attempt to achieve.
A recent report by the Decent Work and Health Network cites that 58% of workers in Canada don’t have access to paid sick days, while 70% of those workers are making $25,000 or less. Workers in these fields are part of a larger societal problem, referred to as “racial sorting”, defined as jobs disportionately occupied by Black and other non-white working class groups. University of Toronto professor and Essential Solutions Project Member, Arjumand Siddiqi, highlighted the occurrence of racial job sorting at a recent appearance before the Standing Committee on Health. In the context of COVID-19, these jobs are largely front-facing roles that present a higher risk of exposure to the virus. Significant parts of the essential workers economy are also largely dominated by women in low-pay work, including education, childcare and personal support care, As put by the Decent Work and Health Network, the lack of paid sick days is a “racial, gender, disability, and economic justice” issue.
Federal Paid Sick Days Program
As part of COVID-19 relief measures, the Recovery Sickness Benefit, is a fully-funded federal program that requires workers to apply in order to receive the benefit. While paid sick days traditionally fall outside of federal jurisdiction for non-federal workers, the benefit was designed similarly to other federal temporary COVID-19 income support programs, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and its successor the Canada Response Benefit (CRB). The benefit is available to workers on an application-based basis, with a one-week lag time between applying and receiving your first payment.
After the NDP negotiated a paid sick leave program, as part of the federal government’s second round of income supports, the benefit was made available on October 5. The national program was open to workers who became sick with COVID-19, have to self-isolate due to COVID-19, or at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. As of November 22, 177,000 people had applied for the benefit. According to the application summary data, the height of applications was in period 1 [the first two weeks of the benefit opening], with the number steadily declining since then.
Questions remain about the declining rate of applications, despite the surge of COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country. Parts of Alberta, Quebec and Ontario are citing workplace infections as the main cause of spread in hard-hit areas. In Ontario, industrial, manufacturing and food processing locations have become a primary source of infection in Peel Region, a region that has neighbourhoods experiencing positivity rates in the double digits. And a recent Toronto Star data analysis found that the city's most recent lockdown is doing very little to protect the working poor, and in actuality potentially worsening outcomes for these communities.
The accessibility, adequacy and even jurisdictional appropriateness of the federal sick leave support presents some challenges. First, applying for the benefit is a complex process and requires the applicant to apply twice in order to receive payment for the covered two weeks. Additionally the benefit provides $500 weekly ($450 after taxes), regardless of employment income or life expenses. Lastly, the current federal benefit available results in workers having to risk losing at least a week’s worth of pay before receiving financial support — a sacrifice that low-income workers may not be able to take.
Even as vaccine production and rollouts are underway, uncertainty around their long-term effectiveness, as well as specific details around rollout remains. Paid sick days still act as a safeguard for current and future illnesses, further guaranteeing the success of containment.
The Next Fight
Employer-paid sick days are needed now. With the federal government extending and enhancing financial support for businesses, the timing to implement paid sick days is ripe. Changes to provincial legislation to mandate that employers provide sick days is the most effective and efficient way to deliver this support to workers. Canada remains an outlier in comparison to jurisdictions around the world. Workers in Australia, Germany, Finland and Norway to name a few provide workers with at least 7 days of paid leave. In the absence of a national program, some states and municipalities across the U.S have taken it upon themselves to implement paid sick days. Although municipalities in Canada don’t have the same jurisdictional powers, city elected officials can advocate for changes to provincial labour legislation. Action is needed to apply pressure on provincial representatives to finally implement employer-paid sick days.
The Decent Work and Health Network have outlined guiding principles that should be used when raising employment standards to include paid sick leave. Changes to provincial legislation must incorporate the following:
All provincial, territorial, and federal jurisdictions must update their employment standards to:
- Require employers to provide at least 7 days of paid emergency leave on a permanent basis.
- Require employers to automatically provide an additional 14 days of paid emergency leave during public health emergencies.
- Ensure paid sick days are fully paid
- Ensure paid sick days are adequate
- Ensure paid sick days are permanent
- Ensure paid sick days are available to all workers, regardless of employment status, immigration status, or workplace size
- Prohibit employers from requiring sick notes
- Prevent the introduction of any new barriers to accessing paid sick days
- Cover personal sickness, injury, or emergency, as well as family emergencies and responsibilities.
Take Action Now
Contact your MPP/MLA: https://www.decentworkandhealth.org/paidsickdays