COVID-19 requires two-prong approach to sick days

This op-ed was authored by Armine Yalnizyan and Laurell Richie and originally published by the Toronto Star on Thursday January 21, 2021.

Premier Doug Ford’s “look over there, not here” routine slows recovery. Pointing at Ottawa’s inadequacies while ducking provincial responsibility won’t turn the corner on COVID-19 in Ontario. We need a two-prong approach to paid sick leave, involving both Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

Yes, the federal government could and should improve the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit — available only until Sept. 25 — and do so before the next budget. But even an improved federal program won’t solve all problems related to sick pay.

The federal benefit is only available if you apply and wait for it, unlike workplace-based paid sick days which keep you on payroll when you’re sick, without any interruption in pay. And you can only get the federal benefit in one week increments because the system can’t handle single days; a partial week with a 50 per cent loss of pay or more counts as one week.

In too many cases, exposed workers don’t qualify, or can’t afford the delay in pay. So they just keep working, sick or not. This spreads disease unnecessarily, leading to a more workplace outbreaks, particularly where there are poor pay and working conditions.

Workplaces with good benefit plans provide both weekly indemnity sick plans and individual sick days. Companies themselves understand the benefit of this two-prong approach because it serves different purposes. They minimize the hassles inherent with applications to insurance carriers, while ensuring workers who only need a couple of days off work aren’t taking a full week instead.

That’s why the province needs to act. Workers need access to individual sick days as well as the weekly Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

We’re not suggesting the province (that is, taxpayers) pick up the tab. Instead, Ontario should require workplaces to keep people on payroll for up to 10 paid sick days. This is true at the best of times, but critical during a pandemic.

In order to contain the contagion during this more difficult and deadly second wave, it should go without saying that people need to take time off work to get tested and avoid work if they are quarantining or unwell. But the people most likely to get exposed or sick are the least able to do so.

In 2016, three-quarters of the poorest paid workers didn’t have access to paid sick leave. It’s likely more now. Many low-paid workers are essential workers in the caring economy, in food, some retail, and delivery services. These workers, often racialized and precariously employed, face repeat exposures at work and on public transit. They can’t work from home. They take their life in their hands every time they head to work.

The emergency federal weekly sickness plan helps some workers, but not all. Vulnerable workers also need provincially legislated individual paid sick days.

Companies like Amazon, Walmart and Loblaws will not suffer. Indeed, they may benefit. But some financially distressed employers may need provincial help.

The federal response could be improved (by allowing Recovery Sickness Benefits for more than two weekly payments; reducing its $5,000 annual earnings requirement; and delivering the promised extension of EI Sickness Benefits). But that doesn’t let the province off the hook.

Ford’s call for a more muscular federal stance toward vaccine suppliers (“I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker”) should apply equally to provincial efforts to contain the contagion: better, faster testing for exposed workers; assure all workers can get tested or isolate themselves without losing pay. No worker should be penalized for taking care of their health, and the health of their workplace.

It is astounding that a pandemic that has led to almost a quarter of a million tested cases in Ontario, 520 outbreaks in care settings, 259 workplace-based outbreaks and over 5,600 deaths, has not yet changed the government’s resolve that employers don’t bear responsibility to ensure sick workers avoid infecting others.

Pointing a finger at the federal government leaves the premier with three fingers pointing back at his own government. We are heartened that he recently decided to increase the pace of workplace safety inspections in some sectors. But workers in Ontario need paid sick days. When it comes to COVID-19, the premier needs to use that firecracker to shake up his own government.

Armine Yalnizyan is an economist and the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers. Laurell Ritchie is EI Working Group Co-Chair, Good Jobs for All Coalition.


Photo: Health-care workers stage a “die in” in front of Queen’s Park on January 11, 2021 to protest the lack of provincial paid sick-day protection. Andrew Francis Wallace for the Toronto Star.