Lower income workers likely to see least paid time off as pandemic swirls: report

Paid leave from work is the first financial line of defence during a crisis preventing employees from coming to work. For one, it guards against the complexities of having to navigate employment insurance, according to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

But as the effects of the coronavirus ripple across the globe, how many Canadians have access to this type of employer support?

“The provision of paid employer leave can take several forms including sick leave or vacation days,” the report said. “The latter should obviously be used for actual vacation, not in lieu of missing paid sick days. However, many workers don’t or won’t have a choice but to dip into their vacation time in the event they are forced to stay home for two weeks or more.”

Read: A refresher on Canada’s leave policies as coronavirus escalates

In Canada, the report found just 38 per cent of leave taken due to an illness or disability was paid in 2019, while 23 per cent of family responsibility leave taken was paid. Meanwhile, 72 per cent of vacation leave was paid by employers, suggesting Canadian workers will need to use vacation time if they want to be paid while staying home during the pandemic.

Whether leave is paid or not appears to have a direct positive correlation with level of salary, the report noted. For those making between $17,000 and $28,000 per year, 27 per cent of leave taken in 2019 was paid. For those making between $48,000 and $55,000, 53 per cent was paid. And for those in the highest income bracket measured, those making $96,000 or more, 74 per cent of leave was paid.

“It is immediately clear that lower-income workers are already substantially more likely to be taking leave that is unpaid — and are therefore far more likely to face the prospect of an unpaid quarantine,” the report said.

Read: Employers moving to remote work to help ‘flatten the coronavirus curve’

While many Canadians are able to work from home, for the majority in lower income brackets who work in jobs that require their physical presence, this isn’t an option.

Further, the status of an employee has plenty of bearing on whether their leave will be paid, the report noted. For permanent employees and those who own their own businesses, 53 per cent of their leave is paid. On the other hand, non-permanent employees’ paid leave rates are between 10 and 14 per cent. Term and contract employees fare little better, with only a third of their time off being paid.

There’s also significant variances in the amount of paid leave available depending on where in Canada a worker lives. Possibly due to their heavily unionized workforces, employees in Ottawa (60 per cent) and Quebec City (59 per cent) see higher rates of paid leave, while Vancouver (45 per cent) and Edmonton (43 per cent) see less, according to the report.

Read: Considerations around employee safety, privacy, leave during the coronavirus crisis

Sector also matters, with the lowest paid leave rates in accommodation and food services (16 per cent), agriculture (27 per cent), construction (28 per cent), forestry and logging (32 per cent), business, building and other supportive services (32 per cent) and retail (37 per cent).

“In summary, while paid leave or working from home are often presented as solutions to stopping the spread of COVID-19, these simply aren’t realistic options for most workers. Without better government interventions, many workers will see sudden drops in income, particularly in a quarantine situation,” the report said.