Ontario MPPs have been given the opportunity to fix a critical blunder.
On March 1st, they faced a turning point: vote to continue the workplace conditions that are driving the pandemic and costing lives or vote to support our patients, essential workers and public health by legislating paid sick days for all. Shockingly, the government voted against paid sick days in the middle of a pandemic. Though Bill 239 was voted down, another has passed first reading: Bill 247, Paid Personal Emergency Leave Now Act, 2021 would legislate 10 paid sick days.
As a public health nurse and an emergency room physician, we know that paid sick days save lives. Canada’s chief medical officer of health, Theresa Tam, called paid sick leave “essential to protect worker and community health,” both during the pandemic and beyond. All 34 of Ontario’s medical officers of health and local boards of health have called for “the permanent inclusion of paid sick leave provisions under the Employment Standards Act.” Bill 239: Stay Home If You Are Sick Act would have put this evidence-based prescription into practice by legislating seven permanent paid sick days and 14 additional days during public health emergencies.
But after a year of telling people to “stay home when sick,” the government voted against legislation that this public health message requires. We know that advising our patients to “stay home when sick” without providing paid sick days is like giving them a prescription they can’t afford. The majority (58 per cent) of workers across Canada don’t have access to paid sick leave – disproportionately low-wage, women and racialized workers. As a result, many can’t afford to take a day off because they live paycheque to paycheque. Even a short lapse in pay puts them in danger of missing rent and being unable to provide for their families. Workers without paid sick time are less likely to take time off work when sick and more likely to delay medical care.
The results are both tragic and preventable: long-term care homes and other workplaces are the top two sources of COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario. Low-wage, part-time and temporary workers who cannot work from home are the most vulnerable and are less likely to have access to paid sick leave. As a result, COVID-19 has disproportionately struck racialized workers, often women, from factories in Brampton, Ont., to farms in Surrey, B.C., and slaughterhouses in Alberta, the scene of one the largest workplace outbreaks in North America. How many more outbreaks do we need before governments legislate paid sick days?
The ongoing denial of paid sick days is a threat to our patients and to health-care workers as well. As a registered nurse, I have never had paid sick days. And what is more worrisome is that many of our colleagues are denied them as well. The pandemic has cost the lives of hospital cleaners, personal support workers, health-care aides, orderlies and nurses. We have denied paid sick days to these same frontline health-care workers we have praised as heroes. Nurses and paramedics in Ontario have to self-isolate without pay; it was only last month that nurses in Alberta got access to paid sick leave. The lack of income security magnifies the pandemic’s health threat: 77 per cent of health workers who have worked with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients have reported worsening mental health issues. Long-lasting support is needed to prevent health-care burnout.
Paid sick days save lives. They allow our patients to stay home when sick without financial loss, incentivize taking the time off for a COVID-19 test, and encourage vaccination. As a study on long-term care facilities in the first wave found, “facilities that provided sick pay had significantly fewer cases of infection among both residents and staff compared with those that did not.”
It is up to provincial governments to fill the gaps in the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), which complements but does not replace paid sick days. The CSRB can’t be used in two crucial scenarios: taking a day off for a vaccine or taking two days to get tested and self-isolate awaiting results. In addition, it only provides a retroactive payment of $450 a week after tax – less than minimum wage for full-time workers – and can take up to four weeks to be deposited, delaying income. Our patients should not be punished by losing their income for protecting public health.
Denying paid sick days was a costly public health policy before the pandemic, is driving outbreaks during the pandemic and will continue to cause preventable harm after the pandemic. No patient or health-care worker should ever have to choose between making ends meet and protecting public health. Our treatment plan is clear: paid sick days need to be universal, fully paid, adequate, permanent and accessible for all. In Ontario, Bill 239 was voted down but another is being considered: Bill 247, Paid Personal Emergency Leave Now Act, 2021 would legislate 10 paid sick days. This could be replicated across the country. No government should make the same costly blunder of voting against paid sick days in the middle of a pandemic.
Essential workers have been doing their part. With the threat of a third wave, it’s time for provincial governments to pick up the slack and immediately legislate permanent paid sick days for all.