As it becomes increasingly clear that workplaces are a key transmission location in the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, some Canadian employers are offering paid sick leave to their employees in the absence of government action.
Paid sick leave benefits, which allow workers to call in sick without fear of losing a day’s pay, are becoming a political issue across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic’s third wave, especially in Ontario.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has frequently refused to offer sick days to essential workers, saying a program run by the federal government already exists, shooting down Opposition motions on the issue. But in a sudden change of course, Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday the government was looking into the possibility of a provincial paid sick day program. Ford issued an emotional apology on Thursday for introducing restrictions that sparked furious backlash as he confirmed his government would bring in paid sick-leave for workers after months of refusing to do so. As of Friday morning, though, details of the program were yet to be revealed.
To date, there have been a total of 825 workplace outbreaks in the province’s two biggest coronavirus hot spots — 423 in Toronto and 402 in neighbouring Peel Region. Last year, roughly 2,000 people with the coronavirus reported going into work following the onset of their symptoms and at least 80 worked for one or more days after a positive test result, according to Peel’s public health unit.
Without paid sick leave, workers bear the cost of lost income if they don’t come to work, labour experts say. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” says Raji Jayaraman, an economics professor at the University of Toronto. “Without paid sick leave, there’s pressure on especially lower-income workers to come into work even if they’re not feeling well.”
The Canadian Press contacted 36 employers across the country where workers must be physically present, seeking information about their paid sick leave policies. Fourteen of those companies said they offer such benefits, including CIBC, Dollarama Inc., WestJet Airlines Ltd., Kraft Heinz Co. and Labatt Brewing Co.
Loblaw Cos. Ltd. introduced programs for all full- and part-time employees “to ensure no one would lose pay for coronavirus-related absences,” said spokeswoman Catherine Thomas. She added that “thousands of employees” have used its “pay-protection program,” which she said amounts to paid sick days during the pandemic.
Rival grocer Metro Inc. also offers paid sick days “to a number of unionized employees depending on their collective agreement as well as to a number of employees who are not unionized,” said Marie-Claude Bacon, vice-president of communications at Metro, in an email.
Meanwhile, Air Canada employees who suspect they have the coronavirus are paid while they determine whether they have the virus, if supported by appropriate documentation, said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick in an email.
Enbridge Inc. employees “get as much paid time as they need to get well,” said spokeswoman Tracie Kenyon in an email. She added that the company has paid sick leave for employees for 14 calendar days, as well as short-term disability benefits if more time is needed.
General Motors Co. said it has provisions in place to support employees who cannot work because they are sick or have been asked by GM to self-isolate or quarantine. Provisions include flexible work arrangements, temporary leave, and paid sickness and accident benefits, said Jennifer Wright, director of communications for General Motors of Canada Co.
“Under our collective agreements with Unifor and our salary work policies, we have provisions in place to support employees who can’t work because they’re sick or who have been asked by GM to self-isolate or quarantine,” she said in an email.
Toy and game maker Spin Master Corp. said it provides employees with five personal paid days per year, which they can use for personal illness or to care for others in their family who may be ill. They don’t require a doctor’s note. “For those employees who may have contracted the coronavirus or who have had to care from someone with the virus, we’ve been making every accommodation, including extended paid sick or caregiver leave,” said spokeswoman Lauren Colt in an email.
Auto parts maker Magna International Inc. provides paid leave that can be used for vacation, personal use or if someone is sick, said Tracy Fuerst, vice-president of corporate communications, in an email.
Tim Hortons didn’t directly answer questions about whether it offers workers paid sick days. However, a spokesperson said a program funded equally by the company and franchisees “ensures that Tim Hortons team members who have contracted [the coronavirus] or who are self-isolating at the specific request of the government, medical authority or restaurant owner will be compensated for scheduled hours for up to 14 days.” Tim Hortons didn’t respond to follow-up questions regarding whether the program covers employees who stay home if they suspect they may be sick.
Maple Leaf Foods also didn’t directly answer questions about its paid sick-leave policy. The company “is providing nourishing food people need during this pandemic and we’re committed to finding the best ways to fill our essential role and keep our people safe at the same time,” said Janet Riley, vice-president of communications at Maple Leaf Foods.
Scotiabank said employees are eligible to receive full salary for 10 days of combined sick and personal time with no doctor’s note required. Employees sick for more than a week can apply for short-term disability, a fully bank-paid benefit that provides full compensation for the first eight weeks. Documentation may be required, the bank said.
A spokeswoman for BMO Financial Group said the safety of its colleagues, customers, and communities is a priority. “BMO provides excused paid days to all regular employees, in all jurisdictions, to support quarantine requirements due to exposure to or a diagnosis of [the coronavirus],” Natasha Boeck said in an email. “In situations where an employee falls ill as a result of [the coronavirus], they can utilize their sick days and if the situation persists, employees may also apply for short-term disability.”
Paid sick days should be legislated through governments’ employment standards to make sure all workers have access to it, said Carolina Jimenez, a co-ordinator with advocacy group Decent Work and Health Network. Only 42 per cent of working Canadians say they have access to paid sick leave, while only around 10 per cent of low-wage workers do, data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows.
“Workplaces are key drivers of infection. We’ve seen these numbers time and time again,” said Jimenez, who is also a registered nurse in Toronto. “It’s no coincidence that these are the very same places that employ workers at minimum wage, with very little protection [and] no paid sick days.”