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Lack of Paid Sick Leave in BC’s Budget Is a ‘Missed Opportunity’

‘I do believe this will save lives.’ Labour leaders and analysts say more must be done.

Andrew MacLeod 22 Apr 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the B.C. government says it would like paid sick days to be available to all workers, but it has so far avoided stepping in to fill the gap.

When questioned about the lack of funding for paid sick days in the budget Tuesday, Finance Minister Selina Robinson said Premier John Horgan has been pressing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to take action. The federal government released its own budget Monday, the first in two years.

“The premier has been certainly talking with the federal government and asking them... to develop a national paid sick leave program making sure that all Canadians, no matter where they live, have the opportunity to stay home when they’re sick,” Robinson said.

“I was disappointed that the federal government chose not to do that, and we’re going to continue to talk with them and encourage them to move forward on that.”

The response failed to satisfy B.C. labour leaders and others advocating for paid sick days.

Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist and the public interest researcher at the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the need is clear as the pandemic enters its third wave.

“It was a political dance not to do that, so that I find very disappointing,” she said.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said that the importance of paid sick days as a response to the pandemic is clear, and the province continues to look for ways to improve on the program the federal government already introduced.

“We will continue to pursue all avenues possible to make sure the workers don’t have to go to work when they’re sick,” Bains said. “We are preparing for next steps by talking to our stakeholders."

Horgan had been making the case to the federal government since early in the pandemic, and last July headlines gave him credit for succeeding when the federal government introduced the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

But by December, Horgan was acknowledging holes in the federal program and saying the province was prepared to step in to fill them.

“It’s all critically important that we have this seamless approach to how we deal with sick time, how we make sure people do not go to the workplace when they are not feeling well,” he said at the time. “That’s how community transmission begins.”

Speaking ahead of the release of the budget, BC Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk said he wanted to see “true” paid sick leave introduced.

“I thank the premier for the work he did, because he was one of the premiers really pushing for a federal sick leave program, and he was successful in the feds putting one together, but it’s woefully inadequate,” he said.

Continuing to wait on the federal government for a better program is the wrong approach at this point, Cronk said. “I’ve lost confidence the federal government will pivot that program any further, so I’m calling on the provincial government to fill that gap now, like they have with other things.”

There are similar calls in Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford’s government has been under pressure as COVID-19 numbers rise to introduce a provincial paid sick leave program.

The Ontario government said Wednesday that it would announce measures to address gaps in the federal program within days.

The federal CRSB offers $500 a week for a maximum of four weeks during the year.

That works out to less than minimum wage for someone in B.C. working full-time hours, Cronk said, adding that for many workers it would be insufficient to cover their bills.

There are also issues with how the program sets the work week and how it delays payments, he said. Instead of having a worker’s paycheque continue, he said, they have to forego the wages, then apply to the government to be reimbursed, wait to see if they qualify, and wait for the money to arrive.

Instead of having financial need play a role in workers’ decisions whether to stay home when they have COVID symptoms, they should be able to take the day off and still receive their regular wage, Cronk said.

It could work similarly to the federal wage subsidy program, where a worker would continue to be paid and the government would reimburse the employer for up to 75 per cent of the person’s pay, he said.

Cronk pointed out that more than 50 per cent of British Columbians get no paid sick days, and the number is even higher — about 80 per cent — for workers who make less than $30,000 a year, a group that includes many people working in grocery stores and other frontline positions.

Going forward, the provincial government should change the Employment Standards Act to create a system where everyone gets at least three paid sick days a year and accrues more with each pay period, up to a maximum of 10, much the same way vacation pay works, he said.

Annie Dormuth, provincial affairs director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the acting spokesperson for the group in B.C., said small business owners support the measures put in place during the pandemic to protect the health of their staff and the public, but are wary of permanent changes.

“The pandemic has caused massive devastation to small businesses across the country, including in B.C., and as we look to economic recovery, any type of permanent sick leave and costs that would impose onto business owners would be a cost they simply cannot bear right now,” she said.

Cronk said one day people will look back on the lack of paid sick days with disbelief. Disappointed by the budget, he continued to press for change.

“I do believe this will save lives,” he said.  [Tyee]

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