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'People are going to work sick:' Third wave reignites debate over paid sick days

The third wave of COVID-19 cases in Canada has reignited debate over sick days, with some calling on provinces to mandate paid sick leave while others say the move could cripple businesses already struggling for survival.
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The third wave of COVID-19 cases in Canada has reignited debate over sick days, with some calling on provinces to mandate paid sick leave while others say the move could cripple businesses already struggling for survival. 

The issue came to a head Wednesday during a press conference with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who directed workers to a little-known federal program that provides income support when workers are sick or need to self-isolate due to the virus. 

Critics say the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit has had poor uptake because it is more akin to the government's employment insurance program than paid sick days. 

They say even workers who know about the program and meet the criteria face delays getting the money and often a pay cut — obstacles that may push people to go into work even when they're not feeling well rather than apply for the benefit. 

"There's a disincentive to take time off and apply for the program because you will lose money," said Randy Robinson, Ontario director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"The lower your income, the more likely it is that you can't afford to do that."

Yet others say the federal program provides compensation to workers who need time off during the pandemic — including those who work for small businesses that can't afford to offer sick days. 

Rather than saddle struggling businesses with additional costs, they suggest that the gaps and flaws in the federal program should be addressed. 

"There is a federal system of benefits available to workers that employers are paying into," said Dan Kelly, president and chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "Let's work to fix the federal program to make it faster and more complete."

Many businesses that don't offer paid sick time are in retail, hospitality and the service sector — industries that are facing "an existential crisis," Kelly said. 

"Their incomes have been ground down to zero," he said. "Now is not the time to throw a nickel of additional costs onto an employer community that is basically fighting for its very survival." 

Kelly added: "Any additional cost will absolutely push more small businesses into bankruptcy."

Yet not all companies lacking paid sick days are small mom-and-pop shops, said Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

"We see workers in warehouses and Amazon distribution centers — companies that have made a huge profit during the pandemic — and they don't offer paid sick days," she said. 

It's an issue impacting the majority of workers, Coates said, noting that 58 per cent of workers in Canada do not have a single paid sick day.

She argued that the federal program is simply not the same thing as paid sick days. 

"Paid sick days are seamless. It's a one-step process. A worker simply calls in sick without experiencing any disruption or decrease in pay," Coates said. 

"CRSB requires a worker who is sick to wait until they have missed a full week of work, they have to fill out an application, they have to wait for the application to be validated, then they have to wait up to two weeks to get paid and it may not be at their full salary."

While the federal program is available to workers across the country, Canada has a patchwork of provincial rules regarding sick leave.

Quebec requires employers to provide two paid sick days after three months of service, P.E.I. mandates one day after five years with the same employer and federally regulated sectors must offer three days.

The issue of sick days appears to be especially polarizing in Ontario because of the province's recent history with mandated sick leave. 

Former Premier Kathleen Wynne had introduced a bill that required employers to provide at least two days of paid sick leave — labour legislation that was scrapped by Ford when he took office.

But some argue that workers should have access to seven paid sick days a year, and more during a crisis like the pandemic. 

"Without paid sick days, people are going to work sick or sending their kids to school sick because they can't afford to stay home," said Danyaal Raza, a family physician and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. "People are not able to follow public health guidelines because they're struggling to make ends meet."

The lack of paid sick days drives up infections and puts a strain on the health-care system, he said. 

Requiring paid sick leave is "the right thing to do from a moral perspective but if you want to break down to dollars and cents, it's also ... cost effective," Raza said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2021.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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