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Paid Sick Days In Canada: What You Need To Know

Experts say paid sick days are key to fighting COVID-19. Do Canadian workers have enough?
A health-care worker leaves after finishing her shift for the day at the Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto on April 24, 2020.
A health-care worker leaves after finishing her shift for the day at the Eatonville Care Centre in Toronto on April 24, 2020.

When Ontario rolled out its latest wave of COVID-19 restrictions and moves to fight the spread of the virus Tuesday, one thing many experts have been repeatedly asking for was notably absent: paid sick days for workers.

While cries for more sick leave have echoed across Canada, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has reiterated that the feds’ Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) is enough and he doesn’t want to “duplicate areas of support.”

“They have that paid sick leave and that’s very important,” Ford said Tuesday. “That will get people over the hump for a couple of weeks. If it extends (beyond two weeks), there’s EI benefits.”

But is the federal benefit sufficient? And why are experts still calling for more paid sick days?

Here’s everything you need to know about paid sick leave in Canada and the fight against COVID-19.

What are paid sick days?

Broadly speaking, paid sick leave is intended to protect your income when or if you are incapable of performing your duties due to non-occupational illness or injury. It usually takes the form of allotted days or hours of pay for days when you cannot work due to illness or injury.

How to get paid sick days?

How much sick leave is offered to workers varies by province and industry. Only Quebec and Prince Edward Island offer paid sick leave on a provincial basis outside of COVID-19 times.

Nationally under the Canada Labour Code, workers in federal industries like airports and telecoms are entitled to five days of leave in a calendar year for sick leave or related to the health or care of any of their family members, including three paid days after three months of continuous employment.

WATCH: Trudeau says paid sick leave program not for vacations. Story continues below.

According to a March report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the six industries where workers were the least likely to get paid leave were: accommodation and food services; agriculture, construction; forestry and logging; business, building and other support services; and retail trade.

In September, the federal government introduced the CRSB, a paid sick leave program offering $500 a week, or $450 after taxes, for up to two weeks off work. Unlike other sick leave, this is paid for by the federal government in the form of an emergency benefit, not unlike the CERB or Canada Recovery Benefit.

Why do experts say the federal program is not enough to fight COVID-19?

Officials say outbreaks in long-term care have particularly been driven by staff working while sick, and that existing policies aren’t enough.

“Our experience has been that outbreaks in long-term care tend to be introduced by workers,” Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe told reporters last month.

A group of Toronto and Hamilton-area mayors called on Ontario to take action on sick pay this week and introduce further provincial support.

This week, Toronto’s top doctor Eileen de Villa also called on the provincial government to introduce more sick leave coverage to mitigate the virus’s spread.

“Not only do [workers] face an immediate loss of much needed income if they do not work, but the tenuousness of their employment status also sometimes means that taking time off work when ill could jeopardize their ‘standing’ with their employer or future earnings,” de Villa said Monday.

In a report issued this week, the Toronto Board of Health called the federal benefit an important step but not “adequate on its own.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2021.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2021.

“The benefit pays less than a full-time minimum wage job, has processing delays of up to four weeks, and does not provide job security for workers seeking to use it,” the board said in a statement.

The Ontario Federation of Labour slammed the Ford government for not introducing more paid sick days Tuesday.

“Health experts have said loud and clear: paid sick days save lives,” said president Patty Coates in a statement. “it is appalling that Ford’s government continues to refuse to act on this common-sense advice.”

How can paid sick days impact the spread of the virus?

Many community advocates say a lack of paid sick leave is actively fuelling Canada’s COVID-19 transmission. Arround 58 per cent of Canadian workers lack enough paid sick leave, according to the Decent Work and Health Network, and that percentage rises as wages drop

One study estimated that the lack of workplace policies like paid sick leave during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 increased the number of cases of influenza-like illnesses by 5 million.

According to research out of Cornell University released in October, emergency sick leave policies like the federal benefit and a similar program in the U.S. have already had a positive effect on flattening the COVID-19 curve.

However, the study’s authors concluded that short-term two-week programs aren’t enough.

“Our findings suggest that the U.S. emergency sick leave provision was a highly effective policy tool to flatten the curve in the short run,” they write.

“However, if workers are unable to take paid sick leave again, they may be forced to work while sick, potentially spreading the virus. The relationship between limited sick leave for American employees and recent increases of COVID-19 cases should be further explored.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify information around the Canada Labour Code.

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