A refresher on Canada’s leave policies as coronavirus escalates

With coronavirus fears escalating, employers are adjusting their leave policies while labour groups are urging governments to reconsider paid leave provisions.

This week, Walmart Inc. introduced an emergency leave policy for its U.S. employees. The retailer said hourly staff who work in a store, club, office or distribution centre will receive up to two weeks of pay if they’re required to be quarantined. Workers who have a confirmed case of the virus will also receive two weeks of pay. If they aren’t able to return to work after that time, additional pay may be provided for up to 26 weeks for both full- and part-time hourly workers.

Read: North American employers taking steps to protect staff from coronavirus

Adam Stavisky, Walmart’s senior vice-president of U.S. benefits, told The Associated Press that a revised policy was required during these “unprecedented and uncharted times. We are looking to provide some additional support so [employees] can better weather these times.”

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that the government is loosening restrictions on employment insurance payments for people who are off work due to illness by waiving the waiting period for benefits.

Taking to Twitter, New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh said 60 per cent of workers wouldn’t be helped by the announcement. “Other countries have found a way to give people paid sick leave so they can stay home. Canada must do better.”

As many employers shift working arrangements, it’s worth a refresher on the various emergency leave provisions available across Canada.

Read: Feds loosening restrictions on EI as number of coronavirus cases rise

In 2017, Ontario passed a bill that included expanding personal emergency leave to 10 days per year for all employees, with at least two paid days per year for employees who have been employed for at least a week. With Bill 148, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government eliminated the two-day entitlement, replacing it with three new unpaid leaves of absence available to any Ontario employee regardless of the size of employer.

In 2018, Alberta amended its employment standards code and labour relations code to bring the province’s standards into alignment with the rest of Canada. The legislation included five days of unpaid personal and family responsibility leave, which is provided for personal emergencies. In addition, the legislation includes 16 weeks of unpaid leave for a long-term illness or injury.

On March 11, the Alberta Labour Federation delivered a message to Premier Jason Kenney saying the government must get serious about making it possible for Albertans to stay home from work when they’re sick, including making sure all Albertans have access to paid sick leave.

Read: Alberta proposes family-friendly workplace legislation

“It’s not enough for the government to ask working Albertans to stay home if they’re worried they might have contracted COVID-19,” said Gil McGowan, president of the AFL, in a press release. “If staying home means they’ll lose their jobs or their income, many working Albertans will decide they have no choice but to go to work even if they’re sick. Paid sick leave for all has always been the right thing to do. But, if we want to help stop or contain the spread of COVID-19, it is now imperative.”

McGowan said the government should address the situation by immediately moving to introduce legislation that would give all working Albertans 14 paid sick days every year. “This protection needs to be available to all workers, not only those who have been with their employers for prolonged periods of time,” he said. “It also needs to be made available to gig workers whose employers have been allowed to side-step their obligations under law by classifying them as independent contractors as opposed to full-fledged employees.”

On Jan. 1, 2019, Quebec extended its employee leave entitlements. Before the changes, sickness leave was unpaid and employees were required to have at least three months of service with an employer. Following the changes, there’s no length of service requirement and the first two days are paid.

In the Yukon, employees have access to 12 days of unpaid sick leave per year. The Northwest Territories and New Brunswick have five annual unpaid sick days each. And both Manitoba and Nova Scotia offer three days of unpaid family leave, which includes personal illness.

Read: What do Canadian provinces offer around sick, emergency leave?

Prince Edward Island imposes a single paid sick day, provided the employee has been with the employer for at least five years. Before the provision took effect in 2009, employees had to complete six months with an employer before they could take three unpaid days of sick leave. And Newfoundland and Labrador lumps together similar family responsibility leave with personal sick days, providing seven unpaid days in total.

British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nunavut have no provisions in the category of short-term emergency leave related to sickness, injury or other factors.

In 2009, Nova Scotia amended its labour standards code to create an unpaid emergency leave in response to concerns about the H1N1 outbreak, which ultimately was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. During the 2009/10 flu season, the province reported 739 lab-confirmed H1N1 cases, with 255 hospitalizations due to the virus and five related deaths.

More than a decade after the last pandemic, coronavirus is once again highlighting the need for these types of provisions. Indeed, Nova Scotia’s unpaid leave provision is for when the government declares a state of emergency related to health or other issues. The job-protected leave is unpaid but it continues until the emergency no longer prevents employees from performing their jobs.

Read: How should Canadian employers be responding to the coronavirus?