Workers demand paid sick days; politicians blow smoke


“There’s an overall sense of collective solidarity
with essential workers from a broad range
of people and backgrounds.”

Matt Smith, president of Stratcom pollsters


TAKING A “SICK DAY” IS A LUXURY FOR MOST OF US. So we don’t do it. We know it will mean we lose a day’s pay and probably make the boss mad. This is not good. Especially not in the middle of a pandemic. Yet our governments still refuse to pass laws to make employers provide paid sick days.

70% do not have paid sick leave

Government statistics show that 70% of workers have no access to any paid sick leave at all. That number climbs to 90% for low-income workers.

Only two provinces, Quebec and PEI, provide for paid sick leave in their labour standards laws—but the two days a year Quebec allows for, and the one day a year in PEI, are little more than a bad joke when it comes to facing down something as virulent as COVID-19.

Employees in the federal jurisdiction (such as bank workers) get three paid sick days a year: another joke.

Even for workers in unions, collective agreements rarely provide for paid sick leave for more than a few days a year.

Low-income workers have no choice

To go without wages for a day or a week, let alone the four to six weeks it can take to battle Covid, is simply out of the question for low-income workers. They have to go to work—no matter what. This can only hurt them and us: having to work will not help them get better, and it can only increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 to co-workers and so to the rest of us.

A study carried out in Peel Region, where many large warehouses and industrial sites are located, found that out of close to 8,000 people infected by COVID-19, 1,993 carried on going to work while feeling unwell, and 80 even carried on working after testing positive.

Bosses don’t like it

But, losing pay is not the only reason workers think twice before staying home when they are sick. Getting in trouble with the boss is also a problem. One survey found that a quarter of all those asked would feel uncomfortable about taking time off due to the reaction of their employer.

Dr. Preet Brar, is a University of Toronto surgery resident and a patient advocate for predominantly young temporary and migrant workers. He says,  “These workers don’t have job security. So they’re very vulnerable and they’re scared to take time off. They fear they’re going to lose their jobs permanently if they take any time off.”

Feds fumble support

The federal government stepped in with the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) to replace the pay workers would lose through sickness. But qualifying for, and receiving the benefit, often proves to be its own painful experience.

Firstly, workers are only entitled to it if they are sick with COVID-19 or ordered to isolate. Secondly, it can only be claimed by workers for four weeks, which is only adequate for two periods of COVID-19 isolation. Numerous workers have had to isolate four or five times since the pandemic began.

Thirdly, it is only accessible if a worker is off sick for more than half of their working week. Fourthly, only workers who have earned at least $5,000 in the 12 months prior to applying for the benefit can receive it.

To top it all off, workers can only apply for CRSB after the fact.

Too little, too late

The government boasts it can pay the benefit into a claimant’s account within three days. This is not much help given the fact many claims take much longer to process.

For workers on a low income, this kind of delay can prove disastrous and make the difference between being able to pay the rent on time or buy groceries at the end of the month.

The result of this bureaucratic briarpatch is that far too many workers remain without any sick pay at all. Even those infected by COVID-19 are often left in the lurch.

Permanent paid sick leave for all

The idea of paid sick leave for all enjoys widespread popularity. A recent poll conducted in Ontario found a four to one majority in favour of paid sick days, including 74% of respondents under the age of 35. Only 23% of respondents thought that paid sick days would harm the economy.

The worker advocates agree that an entirely new sick pay system is required, one that covers all workers and doesn’t restrict eligibility based on the type of illness or previous employment history.

As Katy Ingraham, an organizer with the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, puts it, “When everything is back to normal, the wage subsidy isn’t going to exist anymore. All of these other subsidies aren’t going to exist. We really need to urgently implement these and continue them even beyond the pandemic.”

The Unifor union agrees, insisting that at least 14 paid sick days for all workers must be written into labour law, not introduced with an expiration date of September 2021 like the CRSB.

‘Pop-up protest’ for paid sick days

Toronto Health care workers staged what they called a “pop-up protest” outside the Ontario legislature on April 25 to demand that the Ontario government stop playing politics and start to use science to beat the pandemic.

A key demand from the workers was ten permanent sick days yearly paid by employers for all workers and an additional 14 days in a public health emergency.

The demonstration was organized by Health Providers Against Poverty, the Toronto Street Nurses Network and the Decent Work and Health Network. All the demonstrators wore masks and were careful to stay at least six feet apart.

Other demands were:

  • A pandemic response that puts an emphasis on public health instead of policing.

  • Vaccination of essential workers, including those who are uninsured and undocumented, and vaccination of residents of hotspots and marginalized communities.

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