In Ontario, the most diverse neighbourhoods had double the rate of mortality rate, triple the rate of infection and quadruple the rate of hospitalizations and ICU admissions; in the Peel region, 25 per cent of workers went to work with COVID-19 symptoms; in 2021, 2,852 food processing and farm workers in Ontario got COVID-19 from work, a rate of infection second only to health-care workers.
Those statistics are from the latest Decent Work and Health Network (DWHN) report, Prescription For A Healthy Pandemic Recovery: Decent Work For All, that highlights how gaps in wages, hours, paid sick days and workplace protections have played a major role in driving the pandemic.
As a medical student, none of this is new to me. Part of our holistic understanding of patient care is to know that working conditions are a determinant of health. This is why for the past two years, we have joined hundreds of health-care workers, public health experts and community advocates in calling for 10 permanent, employer-paid sick days.
In Ontario, a temporary program established in April 2021 and set to expire at the end of July gives workers three paid days but only for reasons related to COVID-19 such as presenting with symptoms or caring for an affected family member. Three days, even though people remain infectious for at least five days and can experience symptoms for even longer. Data shows that many workers used those three days to get vaccinated and would not have any remaining to stay home if they become sick with symptoms in the current wave. Furthermore, the lack of testing in Ontario makes it almost impossible for workers to access the support they would need.
The Ontario Medical Association, along with several noted health associations, oppose sick notes for minor illnesses as it wastes health-care resources and exposes vulnerable patients to infections. If workers cannot access paid sick days, then they must go to work even when ill, fuelling infectious presenteeism, spreading disease and preventing workers from seeking timely care.
This is a workers’ issue, but it is also an issue of racial and gender equality.
This is a workers’ issue, but it is also an issue of racial and gender equality, given that lack of paid sick days disproportionately affects low-wage workers, minorities and women.
That is why the Ontario Medical Student Association (OMSA) supports a comprehensive, paid sick leave program legislating 10 permanent sick days for all workers, plus an additional 14 paid sick days during pandemics. The sick days must be universally accessible to all workers and immediately accessible without barriers, fully paid by employers, and permanent.
In 2020, London-West MPP Peggy Sattler introduced the Stay Home If You Are Sick Act that would have implemented a comprehensive paid sick days program; the bill was blocked by the government. In fact, the Ford government axed two days of paid sick leave when it took office in 2018 and has voted against paid sick days more than 25 times.
With a provincial election slated for June 2, we have an opportunity to decide whether Ontario’s workers are finally prioritized for basic employment rights. We have an opportunity to vote for 10 paid sick days.
The evidence is clear. Paid sick days save lives and improve public health and health equity. With paid sick days, workers who are sick can seek medical attention, get tested and treated. They are less likely to go to work while sick and get injured at work. The policy also makes sense economically. When workers are able to access primary care early, there is less reliance on the emergency department or specialist services.
As the generation of future health-care professionals, we demand paid sick days because they are not a privilege, they are a right. We need to advocate for our patients and our communities and demand that our political representatives support a comprehensive, universal, employer-paid program that is adequate, permanent and accessible.
The time to act is not in the future. It is now.