Paid sick leave has been a contentious issue during the pandemic in Ontario. Doctors and health advocates have been fighting the Ford government to reinstate paid sick leave since the start of lockdowns in Ontario. In April 2021, the Ford government introduced a temporary paid sick leave plan, of three paid sick days under the Employment Standards Act 2000. Doctors, nurses, health advocates and essential workers say this paid sick leave plan is disappointing.
Government: Just stay home & #COVID19 will go away!
Essential Workers: But we can’t afford to stay home, we’ll lose our jobs! We need paid sick leave/child care, a moratorium on evictions & workplace protections.
Government: *crickets*…Just stay home & #COVID19 will go away!
— Naheed Dosani (@NaheedD) January 8, 2021
Dr. Gaibrie Stephen, an emergency room physician in Peel Region says, “anytime there’s an outbreak in an Amazon factory or a different type of factory in the region, of which there have been many, these are the people I care for on a regular basis.”. According to Peel Public Health data, from September to December 2020, 68% of COVID-19 cases were related to a workplace outbreak and 1 in 4 people were going into work sick.
“When you talk to these patients,” Dr. Stephen says, “they say, ‘I had to go to work and I didn’t realize I had symptoms. Or it’s a family member that came to work and didn’t realize they had symptoms, in a multi-generational home. Many people are not working in order to thrive in this country, we have a system where people are just barely surviving and that is not good for health”.
Lack of paid sick days is a public health hazard in Ontario
Health providers in Ontario from the Decent Work and Health Network (DWHN), have maintained that the lack of paid sick days in Ontario is a public health hazard. Their report details that 58% of workers in Canada do not have workplace-mandated paid sick days. Furthermore, essential workers in COVID hotspots are usually low-income and cannot afford to miss work.
Rebecca Gordon from the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC) says because many workers are low-income and living in poor living conditions, they are more susceptible to being sick.
Low-income, essential workers are often returning to multi-family or multi-generational households, with mutually dependent adults. In essence, a worker could catch the virus at work, come home and spread it to family members who are also essential workers, and then those workers go to work and the cycle continues.
A study done in Scarborough demonstrates that essential workers in multi-generational homes have accelerated the virus’s transmission in low-income areas. If these workers had paid sick days, they could isolate themselves at home without having to worry about income. This would help prevent the spread in their workplaces, and stop perpetuating the transmission cycle.
Gordon also says, "The majority of restaurants don't provide paid sick leave. Studies show that only about 10% of restaurant workers have paid sick leave. We work with some restaurants that do offer paid sick leave and they've done really well at retaining their staff. It's a good business practice to provide paid sick leave to your staff but most of them don't, they use the excuse that restaurants have very small profit margins."
When the CRWC did the math, they quickly found this wasn't true. For one person to call in sick at a pizza restaurant, for example, it's $114.00 for a full-time worker to miss one day. At most pizza restaurants, they can make $114.00 in less than an hour so Gordan says, "they can likely make up that cost with a positive impact for their workers" and avoid contributing to a public health hazard — but they don't.
Canada is well behind other countries in terms of paid sick days
Only three countries, the United States, Canada, and Japan have no national policy requiring employers to provide paid sick days. Dr. Stephen spotlights how behind Canada is in guaranteeing workers access to paid sick leave.
While employers may choose to offer more benefits and days off, Quebec and P.E.I. are the only provinces where workers are entitled to receive a minimum number of paid days, and even then there are conditions.
Here's a look at what paid sick leave looks like in every province and territory:
Doctors have a number of proposed solutions
***Doug Ford's announcement is NOT paid sick days!*** Paid sick days come through legislation requiring employers to provide days where a worker can be off sick, and get paid. Ford is "working on" sick pay, which is something you would have to apply for and wait for. #onpoli
— Ritika Goel (@RitikaGoelTO) April 22, 2021
Dr. Amarpreet Brar explains why the current plan in place by the Ontario government is inadequate.
Doctors at DWHN (including Dr. Stephen and Dr. Brar), have outlined five principles to effective paid sick leave. It must be: universal, fully paid, adequate, permanent, and accessible. In order for paid sick leave to positively impact public health, those principles must be met.
Dr. Brar also says, "Labour is health and labour is a very strong determinant of health. Temporary employment agency workers don't have any paid sick leave but more than that, they don't have any job security."
During the pandemic, many companies relied on temporary employment agencies because of the economic uncertainty. Dr. Brar says, "the lack of paid sick leave really affects precarious workers. They're already working minimum wage, paycheque to paycheque and they don't have job security. They're in the most vulnerable position. As a physician, I can see how these workers would be discouraged from testing, isolation, vaccinations and would put their health above their work."
Health care providers have been advocating for effective paid sick leave employment standards provincially and federally. Research demonstrates that staying home when sick is one of the most effective containment strategies for infectious disease. The principles above are to act as a guide for jurisdictions across Canada to update paid sick leave legislation to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.