Yukon is the first jurisdiction in Canada to provide government-funded paid sick leave with a program targeting workers who are most likely to suffer from taking unpaid time off.

Retroactive to April 1, 2023, employees without paid sick leave through their employer and who are making less than or equal to $33.94 per hour, will qualify for 40 hours of pay over 12 months covered by the government.

Premier Ranj Pillai says the government-funded program supports the private sector in a tight labour market where the territory has among the lowest unemployment rates in the country. “We just felt, as a government, that it was important for us to show that commitment to the private sector, understanding that the private sector in Canada is going to be where the growth is as we see federal government spending start to slow.”

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The threshold to qualify represents the average Yukon private-sector wage. Pillai says workers who make lower wages tend to be the most vulnerable. “Those are the folks that really can’t miss a paycheque and so they’re going back to work — in some cases, when they shouldn’t be, when they’re sick — and then their co-workers are getting sick. And in the end, that, of course, also drives things like hospital visits.”

The program also applies to self-employed workers and covers sick leave taken from April 1, 2023 to March 31, 2025. It’s estimated it will cover up to 7,000 people and cost the government about $11.8 million over those two years. According to Pillai, the two-year period will give the government a chance to review the program and see if any changes need to be made.

In a press release, Yukon’s government said that, when an employee takes time off because they’re sick, they’ll continue to be paid by their employer as if they’d been at work and the employer will apply to the government for a rebate.

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Yukon Party Official Opposition Leader Currie Dixon said in a statement the program wouldn’t have happened without the territorial NDP, which are keeping the minority Liberals in government under confidence and supply agreements.

These agreements led to the creation of a panel in 2021 that provided recommendations for a permanent paid sick leave program. The recommendations included calls for 10 sick days a year — double what the new program offers — and protection from termination or reprisal due to sick leave. Pillai says recommendations from the panel will be brought to the public for consultation.

The new program replaces a paid sick leave program launched in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but isn’t restricted just to those missing work due to the coronavirus. It won’t be legally mandated, but Pillai says he thinks it’s something employers will embrace. “If employers are mistreating their staff by not providing the appropriate benefits, those employees are just going to go somewhere else. This is about as highly competitive a labour market as we’ve ever seen.”

Read: Employees consider flexible hours, more sick days most important support tools: survey