The COVID-19 virus is clever.
Most people who spread COVID-19 do not know that they have it. They have no symptoms at all, they are early in their illness and have mild symptoms, or they are getting better and do not know their illness was COVID-19. If we want to stop the spread, we have to give everyone the flexibility to take time off if they have been exposed, if they are considering the need for a test, if they have mild symptoms, and if they are recovering from a COVID-19 like illness. If people do not have the option to stay home sick without severe financial penalties, some will believe they have no other option but to go to work.
This is not in our best interests.
Ontario workers need sufficient, easy-to-access, paid sick days that allow them to look after themselves, and protect their family and their community.
If we want fewer people to die, shorter waves of COVID-19, and fewer lockdowns, we need to add more paid sick days to our COVID-19 response.
The Ontario Government has recently announced three paid sick days linked to COVID-19. And, while we welcome the fact that Ontario has started down this path, we need to go further if we are to match our paid sick day policies to our health and social needs.
Part of the reason for needing to go further is that we started COVID-19 on the back foot. Early in their mandate, the Government of Ontario eliminated paid sick days from the Employment Standards Act, leaving only three “job protected” unpaid leave days.
Wellesley Institute, and so many others strenuously objected to the change. Every worker in Ontario needs paid sick days. Most high-income countries accept that access to sick days leads to better short- and long-term health and well-being of workers. It is also an important protection for the most marginalized in society. Eliminating legislated paid sick days hurts the lowest paid workers who need them the most, because their employers are less likely to provide paid sick days when they’re not obligated to. A 2019 CCPA study found that only 14 per cent of the lowest-income Canadian workers had paid leave, compared with 74 per cent of the highest. Paid sick days are a key lever for health equity.
Unfortunately, the recent announcement does not even get us back to where we started because these three new sick days are not sick days at all. They can only be used in a few very specific ways. In addition, these new sick days come at the end of a gruelling 13 months which has tested and undermined our resilience. The needs of workers are now greater than they were. And this is in part because people feel that they have not been properly supported.
Surely, when a pandemic was shutting down the province, keeping Ontarians from their loved ones, and taking loved ones from them for good, paid sick days were required. Surely, when that pandemic was devastating low-income and racialized communities across our province, we needed paid sick days for their safety. Surely, when there was widespread recognition of the value of, and the risks being forced upon workers who sell us our groceries, our medications, or deliver any number of truly essential services, those heroes needed paid sick days. And surely, when every public health official was begging us to stay home if we had symptoms, surely then, we all needed paid sick days.
It is no surprise that in Peel Region, for example, 66 percent of community outbreaks are in workplaces.
The health and social imperative for a paid sick day policy for the pandemic is clear: all workers in Ontario need to be protected and able to take time off from work if they feel sick, need to get tested, need to isolate, or are able to get vaccinated – without risking their job, hours or having financial penalties.
The Federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) program is designed to provide a minimal amount of assistance to workers who are required to quarantine. It was never designed to be paid sick days, and never could be paid sick days for provincially regulated workers.
The Province’s three days of “Paid COVID-19 Leave” does not fill the gap.
It will be difficult for workers to qualify for and access both programs seamlessly.
The three new days may, for some, provide enough paid days off to get vaccinated or to get tested…once. They will be able to receive up to $200 for a day off.
The Federal CRSB program can be accessed only by workers unable to work for at least half a work week, and provides up to four different paid weeks of leave in a year. So for these two programs to work together, workers would need to be “lucky enough” to quarantine beginning on a Thursday or a Friday. If they can access the federal program and this new provincial leave, they may receive some assistance.
And if they should happen to need a test and a vaccine? Or a vaccine and to quarantine? Or all three? Well, they would have to pick one – there are only a total of three provincial days available for all these purposes.
The only workers who may be able to stay home if they are sick under this plan are those who need a COVID-19 test, and have not taken a paid day off to be vaccinated, and have not had a short-week quarantine ordered, and can understand the complexities of how this plan is intended to interact alongside the Federal plan – the red tape is outrageous, and, in this case, may be deadly. Otherwise, if they cannot afford to stay home, either because they cannot get by without that day’s pay or because their job is threatened if they do, they will go to work.
Our “frontline heroes” that we can’t do without will have to go to work. They may go to work with a little bit of a fever; or a cough that they’re not too sure about; or a little bit of difficulty breathing; or something they think could be an allergy or a cold. But, some of them will have COVID-19.
And the spread won’t be stopped, the rate of transmission won’t drop, businesses will remain closed, stay-at-home orders will stay in place.
And people will get sick, and they will die.
These frontline heroes are disproportionately low-income, and racialized, and Indigenous. Our lack of a comprehensive sick day policy will represent further failures in health equity. It will be seen as systemic indifference and racism.
But the virus won’t care – it thrives on cracks in our social and public health protections.
So, in addition to their proposed new COVID-19 Leave program, which we hope will help some workers get vaccinated or get tested or quarantine, we urge the province to move immediately to introduce paid sick leave for all Ontarians.
The scientific advice is clear. We need to listen to it.
Paid sick leave must be flexible. It must be adequate. It must, as soon as possible, cover everyone.
It must be permanent, because COVID-19 is not the only reason Ontarians get sick and it needs to be linked to proper employee rights and protections.
For all of our sakes, we hope there will be an expanded paid sick leave announcement.