Workers in Canada will have access to a federal paid sick leave benefit, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The new Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit applies to people unable to work because they have or may have COVID-19 or must self-isolate for reasons related to COVID. It also applies to people undergoing treatments, people with underlying health conditions or people who are sick and therefore more susceptible to COVID-19.
The federal government finally announced the benefit after BC Premier John Horgan led the provinces in calling for a federally funded program for employees without paid sick leave. It is part of the Canada Recovery Benefits Act, which unanimously passed a House of Commons confidence vote on September 29.
Right now, the majority of workers in Canada (58 per cent) don’t have employer-paid sick leave and the number jumps to over 70 per cent for those earning less than $25,000. Since the onset of the pandemic, people who cannot afford to lose income have been put in the position of needing to go to work sick. Lives have been lost as a result of COVID outbreaks at worksites, including three Mexican farmworkers in Ontario, two employees of a meat-packing plant in Alberta and many residents of long-term care facilities across the country.
The majority of workers in Canada (58 per cent) don’t have employer-paid sick leave.
Under the new benefit, workers may be entitled to as much as $500 per week for up to two weeks (10 work days) of sick leave. However, to be eligible, a worker must have missed at least 50 per cent of the time they would have otherwise worked in the week for which they claim the benefit and can only apply for the benefit in the week after they take sick leave.
The BC Employment Standards Coalition and the Retail Action Network, which have called for paid sick days for years since before the pandemic began, believe the new federal program is an inadequate response to health authorities urging workers to stay home as soon as they feel sick or when they must care for others who are sick or self-isolating.
The program falls short of protecting workers for a number of reasons:
Workers waking up feeling sick won’t know if they’ll be eligible for the federal benefit because of the one-week wait to apply and then a further wait for the government to respond. This uncertainty may pose too much risk especially for those in precarious, low-paying jobs and for migrant workers who need assurance that staying home won’t affect their take-home pay, much of which is sent to support their families.
The taxable benefit of up to $500 per week (i.e. $12.50 per hour for a 40-hour work week) is actually a wage loss for BC workers because the minimum wage is $14.60 per hour (i.e. $584 per week).
What is desperately needed is paid sick days under the BC Employment Standards Act, the law that sets minimum work conditions.
A sick worker may not be eligible for the federal benefit because of the 50 per cent work loss rule, especially in cases where a worker stays home for one or two days in a week. Eligibility is also an issue because the program requires a valid social insurance number. This means migrant and undocumented residents (many of whom work in essential jobs such as caregivers, cleaners and food service workers) may be excluded from sick pay protection.
And finally, the federal program is temporary with no ongoing permanent paid sick leave provision under provincial legislation, and unless a worker’s sickness is COVID-19 related there is no corresponding employment sick leave protection under the BC Employment Standards Act, exposing workers to potential discipline for staying home sick.
What is desperately needed to address these deficiencies is paid sick days under the BC Employment Standards Act, the law that sets minimum work conditions. We need paid sick day protection requiring employers to pay workers who must stay home due to sickness for up to 21 days during the COVID crisis and after the pandemic for up to seven days per year for other types of sickness. The federal government’s role should be limited to providing relief to those employers who do not have the ability to absorb sick leave wage costs.