Fifteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the B.C. government is introducing a temporary measure to give every worker three paid sick days and promising consultations on creating a permanent paid sick leave program.
Critics said the program is still insufficient, but Premier John Horgan said it will bridge the gap until workers can access other programs that are available to them.
“Having paid sick leave is good for businesses, good for workers and good for our communities, and it will help our economy recover faster,” Labour Minister Harry Bains said in the legislature while introducing the amendments to the Employment Standards Act.
“This new leave will better support workers during the pandemic, giving workers three days of paid leave for circumstances related to COVID-19,” he said. “At the same time, we know that we need to support businesses that are already struggling due to the pandemic, so the province will be stepping up in a major way to support employers with the cost.”
The program will be administered through WorkSafeBC with funding from the provincial government. It will reimburse businesses up to $200 per worker per day.
Bains told reporters it’s very difficult to know exactly how much the program will cost since it is unclear how many workers will need it, especially as many receive vaccines, but it could be around $300 million.
“The cost of not doing this is much higher than the cost of providing the service,” he said.
The most important way to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 is to stay home and self-isolate, but about half of workers in B.C. have no access to paid sick days as part of their employment, Bains said. “The pandemic has highlighted how difficult it is for workers, many of whom are already living paycheque to paycheque.”
If a worker is sick longer than three days, the new program bridges the gap to the federal program, he said. That program provides $500 a week for up to four weeks.
Horgan said he’s been advocating for a federal paid sick program since the pandemic began and appreciated the program the federal government put in place last summer.
“Unfortunately, the federal program has been difficult to access for workers,” he said. “As a result, the province is going to step up and fill that gap.”
In a recent interview with The Tyee, the president of the BC Federation of Labour, Laird Cronk, described the federal program as “woefully inadequate.”
His criticisms included that the amount offered is less than the minimum wage in B.C. for someone working full-time hours, and that there’s too long a lag between when a worker stays home from work and when they can expect to be paid through the program.
The province’s new program will make sure workers who stay home won’t lose pay and that businesses will be reimbursed for the cost quickly, Horgan said.
The bill also allows for a permanent entitlement to paid leave due to injury or illness starting Jan. 1, 2022. Details will be set later by regulation following consultation with employers, workers, Indigenous groups and other stakeholders, Bains said.
The permanent program will help the province come out of the pandemic stronger than it went in, Horgan said. “This is an opportunity to fix a problem that’s been in existence for a long, long time.”
BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said in a prepared statement that workers deserve a better plan. “Three days off is better than none, but it is far from adequate to provide people with the time to recover from COVID-19,” she said.
“This program falls short of fixing the gaps in the federal program, meaning many workers will continue to fall through the cracks. Half-measures will not solve the problem of workers having to choose between staying home when they’re sick and facing possible financial devastation.”
Furstenau said the permanent program’s details should be debated in the legislature instead of being set by cabinet. Any changes should take into account the differences between large profitable companies and small, independent businesses that operate on tight margins, she said.
“It’s far too little and far too late,” said Greg Kyllo, the BC Liberal labour critic and MLA for Shuswap.
The B.C. government could have introduced paid sick leave a year ago and should be accountable for COVID-19 transmissions that occurred because people who weren’t covered went to work while sick, Kyllo said. “There was no need to wait this long.”
Kyllo said he doesn’t accept Horgan’s explanation that he was hoping the federal government would address the need for paid sick days. “It’s that lack of leadership that’s really troubling for workers.”
Also troubling is the plan to introduce a permanent program without coming back to the legislature where MLAs could ask questions and scrutinize the plan, Kyllo said. “It’s very secretive,” he said. “It’s subverting the democratic process.”
Alex Hemingway, an economist and public finance policy analyst for the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said it’s sensible for paid sick leave to be a right extended to all workers under provincial employment standards laws.
“The big problem here is we’re talking about only three days,” he said. “We want to make it as simple as possible for workers to stay home when they’re not feeling well.”
Despite the assurances from Horgan and Bains, the program won’t fill the gaps in the federal program, Hemingway said. “This idea of bridging doesn’t really make sense given the widespread critiques of the federal program.”
He pointed out that workers are ineligible for the federal benefits in any week where they’ve received pay from their employer, meaning that the provincial program may actually result in delaying access for some workers to the federal program.
And while it’s good to have the promise of a permanent program, it remains to be seen what the government will do after it hears from groups and businesses for and against it, said Hemingway.
“When we look ahead to the permanent program, I wouldn’t hold my breath about it improving, given how little we’re willing to do in the middle of a pandemic.”
Cronk said the bill is a move forward though it doesn’t go far enough. It’s good that it covers both full and part-time workers, including those who are new employees and those who make more than minimum wage, he said, but pay for three sick days isn’t enough.
“COVID-19’s not going away after three days,” he said, adding the BCFED would like to see workers covered for 10 days at full wages.
That the government has promised a permanent program is positive, Cronk said. “That has me optimistic the government is committed to bring a program that’s going to keep workers safe, that’s going to keep businesses open and resilient.”
* Story updated on May 11 at 3:52 p.m. to include new information received after publication.