Life as British Columbians knew it ground to a halt in March of last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Overnight, offices cleared out and grocery stores sold out of toilet paper as British Columbians prepared to dig in and stay home for as long as necessary.
While some parts of life have returned to normal – you can find three-ply on the shelves again and many people are back in their offices – a group of economists and doctors are hoping that society’s obsession with presenteeism and showing up, especially when feeling under the weather, is coming to an end.
“The rights of paid sick days is increasingly becoming common sense during the pandemic. You know, it’s always been clear but the pandemic has sharpened this, that we don’t want people going to work sick,” said Alex Hemingway, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Hemingway is one of 80 signatories to an open letter to the B.C. government calling for 10 days of employer-paid sick leave for every employee, whether full-time, part-time or casual. Prior to the pandemic, employees in B.C. were entitled to three days unpaid. From May until the end of the year, workers self-isolating for COVID-related reasons are entitled to three paid days off.
The letter states that by having 10 paid sick days, B.C. would move into line with countries like Australia and New Zealand, although it would continue to lag behind Sweden, which has 14 days, and Germany, which has 30.
The B.C. government is currently developing paid sick leave legislation set to be implemented in early 2022. Sick leave can be included in some workers’ benefits package but according to the B.C. government, half of working individuals do not have employer-paid sick days at the moment and six out of 10 employers don’t offer it.
|. B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. The B.C. government is in the midst of consultations about the way sick days will look starting in 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
A recent B.C. Federation of Labour report stated that 89 per cent of those surveyed believed that providing paid sick leave was an employer’s responsibility.
But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and their membership are concerned. The CCPA is calling for employer-paid sick days, which the organization says is typical in most developed countries.
But CFIB senior policy analyst Seth Scott said that many businesses tell his organization that’s simply something they cannot afford. A recent CFIB members’ survey found that 64 per cent of small businesses do not support any permanent employer-paid sick leave program, with money as the primary concern.
Scott told Black Press Media that at this moment, with only 46 per cent of businesses making normal revenues, small operations are just too cash-strapped to afford sick pay.
“It’s not that they don’t care about their employees and want them to come in sick, but they know that they can’t afford a massive program, like the government’s proposing right now.”
But Hemingway said that’s not been in the case in other jurisdictions.
“The sky doesn’t fall when this type of policy is introduced. German businesses are doing fine, Australian, New Zealand businesses are doing fine with this model,” he said, adding that while there’s often concern when such policies are introduced, it tends to fade away over time.
“When paid sick days were introduced in places like New York and San Francisco, there were surveys done of the employers in those cities. They reported in vast majority of cases, little or no impact on their profits.”
In San Francisco, employees accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Businesses with 10 or more employees may cap paid sick leave at 72 hours, or nine eight-hour days, while businesses with less than 10 employees may cap it at 40 hours.
The CFIB said it wants the government to either pay for sick leave or push the current consultation and decision process to a time when small businesses are doing better.
But Dr. Rita McCracken, a family physician and a researcher at the University of B.C.’s department of family practice, said it needs to happen now.
“What we’ve seen in the pandemic that essential workers are not just healthcare workers, there are people who clean the rooms in hospitals are people who sell us our groceries, people who are sweeping the streets around public transit locations, and these are people who very often don’t have paid sick leave, and they are getting sick and they’re needing to go to work,” McCracken said.
“They have to make a decision between: ‘do I take a decrease in my income this month?,’ which might affect their ability to buy groceries or a birthday present for their kids; or do I go to work with the theoretical risk of transmitting COVID.”
McCracken said she sees patients making that decision every day at her practice – and some employers haven’t helped.
“Early on in the pandemic, there was a number of servers in restaurants who told me that their employers have told them that they couldn’t take time off for being sick,” she said, adding that’s not a decision that anyone should struggle to make.
“They are humans, and they get sick, their kids get sick, and they need to be able to take time off, to attend to that personal health, just like somebody who has a great set of benefits that provide some sick leave.”
And many of the people making decisions about staying home with their kids are moms who statistically are likelier of being employed in lower paying and less stable jobs than their male counterparts.
The hardship is only compounded for women of colour. Statistics Canada figures from 2016 show that women of colour make an average of 33 per cent less than white men.
According to the CCPA, 89 per cent of individuals making $30,000 or less a year – who are more likely to be racialized or Indigenous women – do not have any paid sick time.
This means that young children whose moms can’t stay home with them, and who get 10 to 12 colds a year on average, could be spreading all sorts of respiratory viruses, from child to child and onwards to workers and family members, McCracken said.
And with a pandemic that’s killed more than 2,000 people in B.C. showing few signs of stopping, the risk of spreading something more harmful than the common cold remains greater than ever.
“Ten days is going to help keep people home when they have the worst of symptoms.”