Eighteen months into the coronavirus pandemic and counting, one of its hottest topics is still up for debate.
Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Centre for Future Work
The lack of adequate and consistent paid sick leave constitutes a gaping hole in Canada’s public health and social security response to COVID-19.
As public health officials ordered isolation for infected or exposed Canadians, millions faced an additional, unnecessary worry: how they could stop work for weeks and still meet day-to-day living expenses. When workers face a major economic penalty for following public health orders, many would feel compelled to ignore those rulings and continue working anyway.
The federal government, recognizing the imminent danger of this policy failure, moved quickly with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and other measures to support Canadians to stay home. Those stop-gap measures were important but imperfect. And even when this pandemic is over, the underlying policy challenge remains. Research shows that presenteeism among ill workers (showing up for work then they should stay home) imposes major costs on their colleagues, on productivity and on profits.
Canada’s statutory paid sick leave provisions are weak. The employment insurance sickness benefit provides an additional backstop, but still imposes a major financial penalty on workers and takes weeks to receive. Many employers provide paid sick leave through human resources policy or union collective agreements, but those non-statutory benefits cover less than half of Canadian employees (and are almost non-existent in lower-wage jobs).
We can’t return to a system that pressures people to work when ill, as a sign of dedication to the job. Supporting workers to stay home when appropriate, even as a precautionary measure, must take precedence over employers’ desire for disciplined attendance. Removing the economic penalty for doing the right thing will be critical to achieving safer work after COVID-19. Provincial governments should now move quickly to implement mandatory paid sick leave entitlements for all workers, backed (for longer illnesses) by a stronger and streamlined EI benefit.
Dan Kelly, president and chief executive officer, Canadian Federation of Independent Business
Paid sick time is a tricky issue for small businesses. Most small business owners do their best to accommodate the needs of staff, often on an informal basis, offering paid sick time, trading shifts with colleagues or allowing the option to work from home.
During the pandemic, it’s been important to have support in place as typically minor cold or flu symptoms could actually be a deadly disease. Small businesses supported the work by the provinces and federal government to ensure all Canadians could access support if facing a loss in work time due to symptoms, exposure and the need to quarantine. But this has led to a push to make permanent paid sick leave a requirement across Canada. While credible arguments can be made on the benefits of such a program, small firms have many questions and concerns, like who would pay for and administer it.
Small businesses are under extreme financial strain. They’ve taken the brunt of public health restrictions while making investments in new protective measures. Many have accumulated dizzying levels of debt — $163,000 on average. According to the CFIB’s figures, 180,000 Canadian businesses are considering permanently closed as a result of the pandemic.
Many small business owners are also concerned about the unintended consequences of such a policy. We have to acknowledge that a new entitlement is often met with significant abuse. Paid sick leave can turn into extra vacation days. With doctors and others saying that sick notes are an unnecessary burden on the health-care system, small firms have few tools to combat these abuses.
During the pandemic, the cost of paid sick leave is covered by the EI system and/or provincial programs. The use of these measures has been extremely limited, in part, due to their complexity. There are no easy answers, but simply pushing the bill to small business owners, who are dealing with the greatest economic crisis they’ve ever faced, is just not on.