Strengthening the System
During the pandemic, we’ve been well aware of our personal responsibility to isolate when sick. Yet we quickly saw that many of the most vulnerable in our society had few options when ill other than to come to work, as otherwise they would not be paid, and as a consequence, would not be able to make their rent or afford groceries.
Many of those with modest pay and no paid sick leave work with the public - in grocery stores, restaurants, retail outlets, or as taxi drivers, cleaners and other assistants. By needing to come to work when sick, they have helped to propagate the virus even further.
The federal government created a program to pay people who were out ill for periods of at least a few days. However, the program was not always used or understood by those who needed it most.
The federal government has now proposed legislation for ten days of paid sick leave for employees under federal jurisdiction. Employees are much likelier to take the time to get better if they know that their paychecks will keep coming without the perceived hassle of having to apply for special benefits. However, the number of workers who are under federal jurisdiction is less than 10% of employees in the country. To reach most employees currently lacking paid sick leave, the provinces will need to act.
Currently, in Quebec employers must offer only two paid days per year for illnesses, in PEI just one. Ontario introduced a temporary program to offer three paid sick days, but it needs to be renewed at frequent intervals in order for the program not to expire. Other provinces have at best temporary requirements as well, usually restricted to Covid illness. Yet even in normal times, the flu kills 3,000 people in Canada each year - mostly seniors. If we can reduce the number of workers in nursing homes showing up with cold and flu symptoms it’s surely worthwhile.
Western European countries as well as Australia and New Zealand have had legislation mandating general paid sick leave in the private sector for years, as have many states in the U.S. These include several thought of as being swing states or Republican, such as New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. It’s surprising that Canada, with its relatively strong social safety net, is so far behind.
There are ways to make implementation of paid sick leave less impactful for employers. Federal and provincial governments could give companies tax breaks on amounts paid for sick leave. Increases in the minimum wage could be limited to inflation for at least a few years to compensate employers for extra costs associated with paid sick days as well.
In the early days of the pandemic, it was natural that most regulations focused on personal responsibility of citizens, as designing more elaborate social programs and legislation takes longer. However, after two years the time for excuses has run out. Governments need to focus on services to help citizens, and not just putting the onus on individuals.