Employers and experts divided over new sick leave laws from Ottawa and B.C. and who should pay for them.
More workers have guaranteed paid sick leave in Canada than ever before. Ottawa’s new law requiring 10 permanent paid sick days per year for all workers in federally regulated industries took effect last month, and B.C. is one year into its law granting most workers in the province five employer-paid sick days annually.
“That’s important for unions, it’s important for the labour movement,” said Simon Black, an associate professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.
Ottawa’s legislation covers almost one million workers in sectors like banking, telecom and transportation, while B.C.’s law covers about two million workers.
An older law in Quebec guarantees 2.1 million workers two paid sick days while several thousand workers in P.E.I. get one day of paid sick leave. Yukon may announce a paid sick-leave program later this year.
But even with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no consensus about whether paid sick leave should be a law across the country.
Some economists believe it’s best to let employers “determine what the optimum is” for sick leave, or it could be abused, said Mikal Skuterud, a professor with the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont.
But other experts and employers say paid sick leave laws not only help workers but also benefit public health and business.
“The savings of that employee not coming to work sick, not infecting other employees, not infecting customers, all of those pieces in the longer term do help support the business,” said Dr. Monika Dutt, a physician with the Ontario-based Decent Work and Health Network.
Salon owner says sick pay cuts into revenue
On average, Canadians were absent from work for illness or disability 9.5 days per year in 2020, according to Statistics Canada — up slightly from previous years.
The total number of Canadians who get paid sick leave by law, under a collective agreement, or from an employer voluntarily is unknown.
A Statistics Canada report from 2020 said that roughly 50 per cent of workers who had been employed in the previous two years had access to paid sick days in their jobs; for temporary workers, that number slid to 40 per cent. The lowest paid workers are the least likely to have it.
Many business owners across Canada believe in paid sick leave, and Dana Lyseng, owner of the Supernova Salon in North Vancouver, is one of them.
“I’m absolutely for paid sick time,” said Lyseng, adding it’s important that “when you’re not well, you can be at home and get better and your finances not be interrupted.”
Since last year Lyseng has had to provide five days of paid sick leave for her 34 staff members under B.C. labour law.
When one of her stylists is ill she has to pay them, and the salon usually loses revenue because the customer cancels.
Lyseng says she’s budgeting for sick days to cost her an extra $40,000 a year. She says sick leave, higher labour costs overall and inflation are cutting into revenue.
She believes the federal government should pay for sick days.
“The government already has this money. They are collecting [Employment] Insurance for employees.”
(While Employment Insurance does already provide sickness benefits, they aren’t designed for a day here or there. Applicants require a medical certificate and 40 per cent loss of income for a week or more.)
Organizations like the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have campaigned against paid sick leave being funded by businesses.
Labour minister announces 10 paid sick days for federal workers
Seamus O’Regan says today is a ‘monumental day for workers in this country and federally regulated workplaces’ as a bill providing them with paid sick leave passes.
Sick leave pays off for Alberta manufacturer
For Calgary-based manufacturer Tapmaster, providing paid sick leave was a key part of attracting new workers after several retirements at the company.
“It’s definitely a factor for recruitment and also retention,” said co-owner Tyler Pubben. “Everyone’s much more aware of it now than they were before.”
Tapmaster makes hands-free faucets. The nearly 30-year-old family business has been offering paid sick leave for just over two decades, though it’s not required in Alberta.
During the pandemic, the company expanded from five paid sick days to unlimited sick leave until short-term disability kicks in from the government.
Pubben says that costs and absences have not increased since leave became unlimited.
And crucially, he says the approach protects his business from a shutdown caused by illness spreading through the team.
“If one or two people are gone sick, we can manage. If four or five people are gone sick, then we’re pretty much stuck. We can’t do any work after that.”
New recruit Jace Staples has been at the company for less than a year and says the paid sick leave “was definitely a huge perk. It wasn’t something that I was used to.”
Staples’s last job was in a pharmacy and taking sick days there made him worry about making his rent.
Now, he says he feels highly valued by his employer and somewhat proud too.
“When I got the job, it was something that I definitely was bragging about a little bit.”
To Skuterud, Tapmaster is an example of how a business will create a sick-leave policy that matches its staff to balance out making sure workers don’t come to work ill and and don’t abuse the policy.
Making the case for mandatory paid leave
Since the pandemic, workers in Canada are taking more days for illness and family care than before according to a new report from CIBC, which says “COVID could represent a structural shift within the labour market.”
Dutt, who holds both an MBA and masters in public health, says the reality that only some workers have paid sick leave is not good enough, and 10 days of permanent paid sick leave should be the law across the country.
Dutt says the workers least likely to have paid sick leave tend to be “racialized as non-white workers who are newcomers, undocumented” and not including all workers by law means “we are just perpetuating that inequity.”
A number of medical experts, health advocacy groups, policy think tanks,the labour movement and the Decent Work and Health Network Dutt is part of all have cited evidence to support paid sick leave.
They say it protects workers, helps women stay in the workforce, reduces income insecurity for workers, and supports business continuity by reducing illness transmission at work.
Advocates also point out that Canada is lagging behind most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the majority of which have national permanent paid sick-leave laws.
The U.S. does not have national sick leave law, but a recent report notes 14 states have paid sick day laws, as do 19 U.S. cities.
Canada’s federal government said it wants to see provinces follow its lead on making paid sick days mandatory.
Black, the Brock university labour expert, says Ottawa and B.C.’s new laws could lead to change by giving labour groups “a political stick with which to prod and poke their provincial governments.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the CBC News business unit. Based in Toronto, he’s covered business for about 15 years starting with local news, before moving on to the show Venture and co-creating the series Fortune Hunters. His work for those programs won awards at the New York Festivals and Columbus International Film and Animation Festival. James has a master’s degree in public policy and administration and has also worked on special projects as well as the World at Six on CBC Radio One. Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org
with files from Anis Heydari
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