Paid Sick Days Now!

Nora Cole is Atkinson’s Manager of Policy and Communications. The photo collage features Atkinson staff with our paid sick days frames and our founder Joseph E Atkinson. 

You know those picture frames that appear sometimes on Facebook? The ones to demonstrate a cause you care about? I usually avoid them but recently, I saw one that proclaimed “no more preventable deaths, paid sick days now.” I quickly updated my profile photo and added a link to the Decent Work and Health Network’s petition for paid sick days, and so did many of my co-workers and friends.

We’re far from the first or only ones to make this call – workers have been speaking out about their lack of paid sick days for years. They’ve organized through the Fight for $15 and Fairness, Decent Work and Health Network, and labour unions.  

Because of their work, I see more and more people joining this movement. Unexpected faces in those little purple rings on Facebook. Text messages from friends expressing upset about workplace COVID-19 outbreaks and asking what needs to be done. Emails from family members with reports and opeds attached and the question: “Did you see this?”

They get it. This fight is urgent.

58 percent of workers in Canada do not have paid sick days. Only around 10 percent of low-wage workers have them. These workers are disproportionately women, Black, Indigenous, and racialized. 

And they are the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic – working in grocery stores, caring for elderly people in long-term care homes, picking and packing food on farms and in meat-processing plants. We’ve seen workplace transmission of COVID-19 continue to explode, causing illness and death of too many workers and people in their communities. 

During this pandemic, I’ve reflected on my own and with others on all the times I’ve gone to work sick in the past. And while the reasons have differed, depending on the illness and the job, many of us have enough  experience to know that “stay home” is a simple message but not a simple choice. Without paid sick days, the decision to go to work sick or not be able to pay bills is one forced on far too many workers in Canada every day.    

Consensus on the need for paid sick days is broad and loud and fierce. Workers and organizers have been joined by top public health officers, municipal governments, some chambers of commerce, opposition politicians, unions, and many others. 

The solutions are right in front of us. Last August, the Decent Work and Health Network released recommendations for paid sick day legislation in their report Before It’s Too Late: How to close the paid sick days gap during COVID-19 and beyond. It called on all provincial, territorial, and federal jurisdictions to update their employment standards to mandate all employers provide seven paid days of sick leave permanently, with an added 14 days during public health emergencies, and with no barriers to access such as requiring a doctor’s note. 

So far, no government has taken up this call, despite worsening transmission rates and increasing death rates. 

Here in Ontario, the provincial government rescinded labour standards that required two paid sick days in 2018 and has simply refused to heed calls to reinstate them.

The federal government created the temporary Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit which provides $500 a week for up to two weeks for people who are unable to work if they are sick or need to self-isolate. However, the qualifications are restrictive and you can only apply after you’ve had to take at least half a week off. As Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers Armine Yalnizyan and Good Jobs for All Coalition’s Laurell Ritchie write, it is one part of what is needed, but not a replacement for mandated, permanent, employer-paid sick days at the federal and provincial level. 

Every right for workers has been hard fought. This will be too. And if I’ve seen any indication over the last 10 months, momentum is on the side of workers. So, add the frame to show your support and take action with the Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Decent Work and Health Network to win this fight.