UPDATE: On April 28, the Ontario government announced the Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Program, a paid sick day program that will allow workers impacted by COVID-19 access to three paid sick days. The program, which will end on September 25, will reportedly reimburse employers 100% of employee’s wages for up to $200 a day. This announcement came two days after the legislature voted against a bill that would guarantee 10 paid sick days for essential workers. The voting down of this private member's bill, which was brought forth by Liberal MPP Michael Coteau, marked the 21st time the government voted against paid sick days since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Premier Doug Ford, who was in self-isolation at the time of voting, after being exposed to COVID, said last week that his government planned to come up with a paid sick leave program, making the statement after months of public pressure to address the issue.
Original story, published on April 13, 2021, follows.
Last week, Ontarians had déjà vu as we entered our third lockdown. Premier Doug Ford begged us not to see friends, to stop going to malls (even though Queen's Park reopened them), and to stay inside. But his government has overlooked one of the crucial reasons why the virus is spreading in Ontario and across Canada: because many people working in essential positions in COVID hotspots — like long-term care homes, meatpacking plants, and warehouses — can’t afford not to go to work.
According to workers' advocacy group Decent Work and Health Network, 58% of workers in Canada don’t have paid sick days. That number jumps to 70% for low-income workers and in women-dominated fields like personal support and childcare. In fact, mandatory paid sick leave is currently only legislated in Quebec, where employees get two days a year, and P.E.I, where workers have one paid sick day after five years with the same employer. (FYI, Ontario’s current government cancelled paid sick leave in 2018.) Workers in federal industries are allowed between three to five days per year, while private employers will often give salaried full-time staff days off. But for people in the growing gig economy, students, or part-time workers, taking time off due to illness means no pay for those days.
And so they go to work.
The World Health Organization found that people without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely to work with a contagious illness, and Canadian research shows that workers in high-risk settings — like food handling, long-term care and child care — will continue to work when sick if they can’t afford to take time off. Many of these essential roles are filled by individuals from marginalized communities. “If we think about income as a social determinant of health and how important a full day's wages are for some of these folks living under these very difficult conditions, [this pay] makes all the difference,” says Carolina Jimenez, coordinator for the Decent Work and Health Network.
Paid sick days aren’t just a “nice thing” for employers to do, they’re also essential to stopping the spread. The U.S., cities with paid sick days saw a 40% reduction in influenza rates during flu season compared to cities without, according to 2020 research from the Decent Work & Health Network. Employees with paid sick leave were also less likely to send their kids to school when sick. “It’s clearly evident that [paid sick leave] is one of the strategies that would be useful in controlling the pandemic,” says Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist based in Kingston, ON.
While the federal government does have a program in place for COVID sick pay, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), advocates say it isn’t enough. For one, you have to wait until you’ve lost half of your income for the week to apply, and any the $500 payment, if approved, is received retroactively. This uncertainty means people are less likely to stay home as soon as they have symptoms, or in the early days of an illness like COVID — which is when we're most infectious.
“We have to look at paid sick days as an investment in our public health,” Jimenez says. And if we don’t, the virus will continue to spread in these hot spots. “It's getting deadlier. It's continuing to affect communities that are already marginalized. It has the potential to be pretty catastrophic if we're not putting in policies that protect the very same workers who are keeping society going.”
Here, Refinery29 spoke to six essential workers across Canada about the importance of paid sick leave.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.