On May 25, 2020, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that he would work with the provinces to get workers across the country ten paid sick days. The announcement was welcomed by workers’ rights activists, unions, and worker-side employment and labour lawyers like me. “No one should have to choose,” the prime minister said, “between taking a day off work due to illness and being able to pay their bills. Just like nobody should have to choose between staying home with COVID-19 symptoms and being able to afford rent or groceries.”
The prime minister’s announcement cast paid sick leave in its traditional light: a question of an individual’s ability to meet their financial obligations when they get sick. He is not wrong to say this – there is absolutely no doubt that there are many workers in Canada who simply cannot afford to lose a day’s or a shift’s pay and will go to work if they are not feeling well. But the issue of paid sick days for all workers goes well beyond an individual’s means and – as has now become far clearer in this pandemic age – well into the realm of public health.
If you have any doubt about that, start by asking yourself the following questions:
- If your dental hygienist had a fever and cough, would you rather she stayed home, or came in to work to do your biannual cleaning?
- If the personal support worker taking care of your fragile, elderly parent in a long-term care home had a fever and cough, would you rather she stayed home, or came in to work to bathe, change, and feed your parent?
- If the kindergarten teacher who spends most of her day in your child’s classroom had a fever and cough, would you rather she stayed home, or came into work to help your kid practice their alphabet and learn to zip up their jacket?
- If the person who sits two feet away from you in the next cubicle had a fever and cough…you know where this is going!
Even before COVID-19, most of us would have told those workers to stay home and get some rest. And that was when fever and cough probably meant someone “just” had the flu or strep throat or even pneumonia, diseases that did not stop us from being able to cross borders, hug our loved ones or refrain from gathering in groups of more than five.
Now, of course, it is a lot more obvious that paid sick leave is a public health issue, because going to work with a fever and cough might mean that you are spreading COVID-19 with all its serious implications. But while paid sick leave helps individuals maintain their health and their financial stability – and by extension, their dignity – it has always served a public function by keeping sick people out of the workplace. That is why it is incomprehensible that Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, which sets out minimum standards for most provincially-regulated workers, fails to provide one single day of paid sick leave.
Does that come as a surprise to you? If so, you may be one of the many workers in Ontario who does have paid sick leave. You may be in a unionized job with paid sick leave bargained for by your union; or you may simply have an employer that has chosen to provide it; or you may be in a professional position where as long as you get your work done, your employer does not really bother counting how many days you were away sick. Luckily, there are some fortunate folks in Ontario for whom missing a day of work due to illness is not at all associated with the immense fear, anxiety, and stress of wondering if the bills will get paid.
The point of mentioning this is not just that some of us take paid sick leave for granted. It is that, although statutory paid sick leave is rare in Canada and the U.S., it is still not at all unusual in Ontario workplaces. Providing ten paid sick days for all Ontario workers would simply bring them up to the standard that many unionized workers, including those in the Ontario public service and many in the broader public sector, already benefit from.
“But who will pay for it?” you ask. Well, employers will.
With publicly funded employers, that means we, the taxpayers, are certainly helping foot the bill. But this should not be too hard to swallow because we already do foot it in many ways. Here are some of the ways that public funds are used to pay people who cannot work due to illness:
- Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits (federal) for workers who are unable to work due to illness.
- Benefits under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (provincial) for people who cannot work due to an illness or injury sustained on the job.
- Ontario Disability Support Program (provincial) for people who are not able to meet their basic expenses due to disability, which can include illnesses.
- Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefits (federal) for people who cannot work in the foreseeable future due to disability, which can include illness.
- The new Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which can be accessed by eligible applicants who have lost income due to being sick.
As we can see, various benefits programs are already in place, some that target short-term illnesses and others that target longer-term ones. However, either way, there is least some social safety net for sick workers and it is paid for by the public purse.
Perhaps now that we have reviewed the above programs, it does not seem unfair to ask private employers to cover more of the sick leave bill in the interest of public health. Perhaps private sector employers whose operations depend on having employees – because no employer hires staff just for kicks – should be required to ensure that any employee who gets COVID-19 (requiring 14 days of isolation) or gets any other short-term illness should simply be able to take the time needed off work without losing pay. Period. Perhaps minimum-wage employers should not be allowed to encourage their employees to potentially spread disease by paying them a wage so low that they cannot afford to miss work even when they are sick, and not provide them with any paid sick days. If it was irresponsible before COVID-19 – and it was – it is surely intolerable now.
Will Prime Minister Trudeau succeed in cajoling the provinces to change their laws to provide for ten paid sick days? Your guess may well be better than mine. His government has not yet led by example by amending the Canada Labour Code to include ten paid sick days for federally-regulated workers. But as long as COVID-19 is around – and it could be around for quite a while longer – workers will need to isolate for 14 days if they have symptoms. And no worker should have to lose a cent of pay to protect their own, and the public’s, health.