Paid sick leave is essential to stopping the pandemic

As Ontario struggles to contain the second wave of the coronavirus, the lack of paid sick days for essential frontline workers is only adding to the number of cases.

On Monday, the Toronto Board of Health voted unanimously in favour of a motion asking the provincial government to ensure workers have access to 10 paid sick days during the pandemic. But the Ford government remains unmoved.

Labour unions and public health experts have emphasized the importance of paid sick days as both a labour rights issue and a vital part of helping to limit the workplace spread of the virus. Mayor John Tory and Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, have both advocated for better paid sick leave policies. They joined Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam, who called for paid sick leave benefits for long-term care workers and other employees back in October.

A report released in August by the Decent Work and Health Network found that 58 per cent of workers in Canada have no access to paid sick leave. For those making less than $25,000 a year, that number is over 70 per cent.

The report noted that low-wage workers, including grocery store workers, care workers, delivery workers and cleaners, are most at risk for exposure to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, workplace spread of the virus has been a major source of infection, including at Cargill meat processing plant.

Outbreaks on farms, which rely heavily on migrant workers, have accounted for some 1,000 cases and three deaths in the province.

Newly released data paints a similar picture in Toronto.

During a press briefing on January 21, de Villa revealed that Toronto Public Health (TPH) data as of November 30, found that 49 per cent of COVID-19 cases in city were among people living in lower-income households.

According to the data, people earning less than $30,000 per year are 1.9 times more likely to contract COVID-19 and 2.7 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus compared to rest of population.

“It is important to acknowledge how people’s living and working conditions are contributing to these inequities,” she said, calling the lack of paid sick leave “a significant barrier to our pandemic management efforts.”

What paid sick leave are people in Ontario entitled to?

The federal government introduced the Canadian recovery sickness benefit (CRSB) in October for those who are unable to work for at least 50 per cent of the workweek due to COVID-19. Those eligible can receive $450 per week (after taxes) for up to two weeks.

In a news conference on January 18, Premier Doug Ford refused to consider a paid sick leave program in Ontario, arguing there’s “no reason for the province to jump in” when there are already benefits available through the federal government.

Deena Ladd, executive director of Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre, says the lack of paid sick days in the province is only contributing to higher health care costs.

“We started to work with a lot of doctors and nurses, and they would always tell us that they have so many people coming into their emergency rooms for notes because their employers are asking for them,” says Lass. “Or they’re coming with issues that have escalated out of control, where they could have been dealt with by taking a day off earlier.”

Ladd says lack of paid sick days is causing people to skip preventative medical appointments for diabetes, heart disease, even cancer.

Workers won access to 10 personal emergency sick days that were flexible and job-protected, two of which would be paid, under the previous Liberal government.

But that legislation was only around for a year. The Ford government scrapped paid sick days as of January 1, 2019, and replaced the program with other forms of leave that are unpaid.

“Those [personal emergency leave] days were so critical for anyone who is doing eldercare or childcare or have dependents with disabilities,” Ladd says. “As soon as the pandemic hit, it became our biggest issue because how are people supposed to stay home if they can’t take care of themselves?”

Currently, employees who have been employed for at least two weeks in Ontario are entitled to up to three unpaid days of sick leave for personal illness, injury or medical emergency. As of March 19, 2020, employees can also take an unpaid, job-protected infectious disease emergency leave if they are unable to do their job for COVID-19-related reasons.

Ford’s own public health advisors have raised the issue of paid sick leave.

In December, Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, noted that data for Toronto showed cases continuing to spread dramatically among people without suitable housing or employment outside essential areas, such as factory and grocery store workers.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s The Current earlier this week, Brown offered that “There is a false dialogue going on about a trade-off between health and the economy. That’s what really frustrates a lot the decision making and makes it hard for people, at times, to take stronger action. It’s not a trade-off. We know the jurisdictions that have taken strong, very effective action against the virus have gotten their societies back open again the quickest.”

Ladd says that it’s frustrating to hear calls for everyone to follow COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines when some of those restrictions are impossible to follow without protections for workers.

Ladd says it’s “appalling that we have a government that is failing to do a basic, essential labour standard that would protect people and allow them to be able to stay home.”

Why aren’t federal benefits enough?

When asked about provincially mandated paid sick leave, provincial government officials have continually pointed to the CRSB, arguing that the full benefits available through Ottawa’s program haven’t been used up.

But Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, counters the federal program’s limitations fail to cover the most precarious workers. The OFL has been advocating for seven permanent paid sick days per year, and 14 paid sick days during the pandemic.

She points to the fact that a worker must have earned $5,000 in the past year to qualify, along with the fact that the program can only be accessed twice per year.

“If you think that you’re sick, you stay at home, you go and get tested,” she says. “That’s going to take a day or two to even get to the appointment to get tested. And then you have to wait anywhere from 24 hours to three to four days for you to receive your results.

“Then you have to quarantine,” she continues. “And if you have any residual effects from COVID, 10 days is not enough for you to recover.”

She says the federal program is “temporary and cumbersome” compared to mandating sick days.

“With the federal plan, you have to wait for the money whereas paid sick days is a continuation of your wages. You know where you stand with paid sick days,” she explains.

“Now there are people going to work sick because they have no other choice. If they don’t go into work, they are not going to get paid, then they can’t feed their families, they can’t put a roof over their head, or buy the necessities that they need to live on.”

Ladd says the inaction of the Ford government “could potentially be a life and death situation for many of the people in our communities.”

More COVID-19 coverage:

Ontario should close schools as a “last resort”: SickKids

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