‘If you’re sick, stay home’ is the pandemic mantra. Why that’s a non-starter for many Canadians


The debate around paid sick leave has grown louder and more urgent in the past several weeks as COVID-19 cases have continued to soar in many parts of the country along with concern that people are going to work sick because they can’t afford to lose their pay. 

Health officials in Alberta are investigating two workplace outbreaks of the more virulent P1 variant, first detected in Brazil.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix told CBC’s As It Happens this week that “it’s indoor social and indoor workplace circumstances where we’ve seen the largest level of transmission” of COVID-19.

And in Ontario, it’s a similar story.

“The bulk of cases now that seem to be driving this pandemic are happening in workplaces where essential workers are unable to fully physically distance from one another,” said Dr. Camille Lemieux, medical lead for the University Health Network’s COVID-19 assessment centre.

Many worker advocates say what is needed is better paid sick leave. 

At the end of February, the labour federations from all 10 provinces and three territories joined together to call for “seamless access to universal, permanent and adequate employer-paid sick days for all workers.”

That has not happened.

Here’s a brief look at where paid sick leave stands right now in Canada. 

How many Canadians have paid sick leave?

Most don’t, according to a report released last August by the Decent Work and Health Network, a network of health providers based in Ontario who advocate for better employment conditions.

Fifty-eight per cent of workers in Canada reported having no access to paid sick days, the report found, citing a University of B.C. analysis of 2016 Statistics Canada data. It’s even higher for those who earn less than $25,000 — more than 70 per cent had no paid sick leave.

And a study released last fall by Corporate Knights found only 28 per cent of the large Canadian companies surveyed offered adequate sick leave, which was defined as at least 10 paid days per year.

Members of the Decent Work and Health Network rally in Toronto in 2019. The group says more than half of all Canadian workers have no paid sick leave, with the numbers even higher among those who earn under $25,000. (CBC)

Do any provinces offer paid sick leave?

Two provinces mandate sick leave. 

In Quebec, a worker is entitled to two days per year, after six months of employment, to be paid by the employer. In Prince Edward Island, a worker is entitled to one employer-paid day per year, after five years of employment. 

Despite ongoing demands that the other provinces do something to help workers who are sick, the pleas have fallen on mostly deaf ears. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has argued for months, and as recently as this week, that there is no need for provinces to bring in paid sick leave because the federal program brought in specifically to deal with COVID-19 is adequate.

Ford’s government has refused to pass a bill put forward by the opposition NDP, and supported by the Ontario Federation of Labour, that would guarantee paid sick days for every worker, delivered by their employer.

He accuses those calling for his government to ensure paid sick days of “playing politics.”

WATCH | Ford says people should help others apply for the federal sick leave:  

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his critics ‘are playing politics’ as he explains why his government isn’t instituting paid sick leave. Instead, he’s encouraging Ontarians to use a federal program. 1:07

What does the federal program cover? 

The $1.1 billion Canada recovery sickness benefit (CRSB), which was unveiled last fall, offers workers $500 ($450 after taxes) for a one-week period. If the illness lasts longer, the worker must reapply. 

The CRSB will pay a maximum of two weeks total, for the period between Sept. 27, 2020 and Sept. 25, 2021. A worker must be off sick for at least 50 per cent of their normal work week to qualify, and must have earned $5000 in 2019, 2020, or in the 12 months prior to applying.

Some advocates say it falls short of what is needed. 

“What we’re trying to address here is a worker who wakes up in the morning and they have symptoms,” said Laird Cronk, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, one of the 13 federations that made the joint request for employer-paid sick leave.

The application process and eligibility criteria make it difficult for a worker to just decide to stay home, he said.

“We don’t want them to say, I’m so worried about this untenable decision, so worried about paying rent or groceries and food or medications or for the kids, that they convince themselves that it’s probably seasonal allergies and they hope for the best because they can’t afford to lose the money.”

Workers prepare beef to be packaged at the Cargill facility near High River, Alta. The plant was the site of largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America. (Name withheld)

His federation, for example, is urging the B.C. government to change the Employment Standards Act to let that worker stay home and continue to receive his or her wage for up to 10 days, which could then be reimbursed by the province.

“Employers who can show that they’ve been, in the short term, affected by COVID-19 economically, would receive relief from the government on a sliding scale … up to 75 or 80 per cent reimbursed.”

The head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business told CBC News in January that the CRSB is sufficient and that it is right that the government pay for sick leave — not employers. 

“To impose the costs on small firms at this stage would be really challenging, of course, because most small firms are desperately hanging to say stay on,” said Kelly. “Any additional cost would be absolutely devastating.”

How much is COVID-19 care costing the government?

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), between January and November 2020, stays in hospital for COVID-19 related illness costs about $23,000 per stay — four times higher than the average stay. The average length of COVID-19 stay was about two weeks, according to CIHI. 

In that time period, the estimated total cost of COVID-19 related hospitalizations in Canada was more than $317 million. 

A nurse tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at North York General Hospital, in Toronto, on May 26, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There were more than 13,900 hospital stays for patients with a diagnosis of COVID-19 in Canada between last January and November, along with more than 85,400 emergency department visits for COVID-19.

The CIHI data does not include numbers from Quebec. 

Read more at CBC.ca