As workplace COVID-19 exposures begin spiking once again, the BC Federation of Labour is calling on the province to introduce paid sick days to help workers avoid the risks and reduce transmission.
“The untenable choice of having to pay the bills or go to work usually results in people going to work sick,” said Laird Cronk, president of the federation, which represents about 500,000 workers in B.C.
WorkSafeBC reported 234 workers made compensation claims based on workplace exposures to COVID in August, more than double the 87 claims in July. Since September 2020, there have been 6,325 COVID-19 claims across all sectors, with a record 943 in December.
The increase comes as the pandemic’s fourth wave continues to batter workers in health, social services and education, just as it did in the previous three pandemic peaks, and raises concerns that workplace outbreaks will fuel COVID’s spread.
Cronk said paid sick leave for workers “could have prevented all these exposures in the first place.”
If paid sick leave for all workers had been in place when the pandemic began in March 2020, Cronk said, “we would have been so much better prepared to deal with this.”
The new WorkSafeBC numbers show workplace exposures and transmission are increasing with the Delta variant and relaxed public health measures in public-facing sectors like food service and education.
That same day WorkSafeBC released the August numbers, the labour federation released a report arguing all workers should be guaranteed up to 10 paid sick days to protect public health during a pandemic and beyond.
When the pandemic began, B.C. was the only province in Canada without protected unpaid sick leave for workers.
In May, the provincial government announced it would introduce three days of paid leave for COVID-19 reasons, and legislate paid sick leave for all provincially-regulated employees. Consultations for the permanent legislation, which will take effect on Jan. 1, are ongoing.
Labour Minister Harry Bains said he would review the BC Federation of Labour report before public consultations begin later this month.
“We are aware of the impact this pandemic can have on our workplaces,” Bains said in a Friday statement to The Tyee.
The three days’ paid COVID-19 sick days have already protected workplaces, he said, and expanded sick days will build on the program.
“We will listen to what everyone has to say, and develop a minimum entitlement that is fair and reasonable,” said Bains.
Cronk said the temporary COVID-19 measure is important, but the legislation needs to be as broad as possible to save lives. Three days is not enough for anyone, he said, let alone someone with COVID-19 who needs to isolate for two weeks.
A majority of British Columbians agree. New polling included in the report shows about nine in 10 British Columbians believe employers have a responsibility to provide paid sick leave, and 76 per cent say it should also cover part-time and casual workers.
These are the people paid the least, in the most public-facing high-risk jobs and who have the least means to take unpaid sick days. About 80 per cent of workers making $40,000 or less annually don't have paid sick leave at all.
“COVID or the flu don’t distinguish whether you’re full time or part time or a casual worker,” said Cronk.
Part-time and casual workers are also more often women or racialized people, which means paid sick leave is also a gender and racial justice concern.
In order for B.C.’s coming legislation to save lives, Cronk says it also needs to be accessible and flexible.
That means it should pay full wages rather than just a proportion and be included in workers’ regular paycheques.
For a worker making the decision whether to work through a scratchy throat or stay home and get tested, needing to apply or wait for the money may mean they still go to work sick.
“British Columbia can lead Canada, can lead North America, and say, ‘This idea is overdue,’” said Cronk.
“It future proofs us for what will come next.”