SASKATOON -- Workers, especially low-wage, front-line employees, should be given paid time off to get the COVID-19 vaccine, employment and labour advocates say.

But so far only one province has officially amended its health and safety regulations to introduce what it’s calling a “special vaccination leave.”

As part of its Phase 2 vaccine rollout, Saskatchewan announced last week it was introducing a three-hour paid leave to allow workers to get jabbed on company time. Outside of Canada, New York state introduced legislation to allow four hours of paid time off work to get the vaccine. And a Toronto-based employment lawyer said these are models are worth copying.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Waheeda Ekhlas Smith told in a phone interview. She likened the approach to how Canada mandates paid time off for workers to vote in a federal election. “I think it would make a difference, particularly for retail workers or factory workers.”

She said this is a much better incentive than free gift cards or even free doughnuts, for example, which some companies in the U.S. are offering.

Other provinces have yet to state if they’ll follow Saskatchewan’s lead. However, it may be a bit premature as most provinces are still currently vaccinating vulnerable groups such as the elderly, those with disabilities, as well as Indigenous people. But this is changing as provinces such as Ontario are now planning to offer vaccines to non-medical front-line workers, such as restaurant employees.

“Something like having paid time I think would make a huge difference because one of the reasons that these lower-wage earners have gone into work -- even when they weren’t feeling well -- was because they didn’t have paid sick leave,” Ekhlas Smith said.

“Those who may be lower-income earners may [also] be in a position where they can’t say anything,” she said, explaining that a lot of workers are in precarious work environments and fear losing their job if they somehow upset their bosses.

“I can’t see them being able to advocate, even during the best of times, and to have a voice."

Throughout the pandemic, it was not uncommon for workers in this position to continue going to work if they felt sick or even unsafe because they simply couldn’t afford to miss a paycheck.

Advocates have similarly flagged the lack of financial supports for some disabled workers during the pandemic. Others have criticized Ontario’s lack of a paid sick leave program, with the official opposition party urging Premier Doug Ford to offer paid time for workers to get the COVID-19 shot.


Other worker advocates across the country have been lobbying their respective provinces for programs similar to Saskatchewan’s.

“Many front-line workers might not have access to time off to attend a vaccination appointment in the tight turnaround between becoming eligible for vaccination and receiving an appointment,” Kim Novak, UFCW 1518 union president, which represents grocery store workers in British Columbia, told in an email.

For the past several weeks, Novak said her union has been calling on B.C. “to remove these logistical barriers to vaccination for front-line workers by granting them four uninterrupted hours off work.”

Her union also noted that another avenue for workers could also be setting up vaccination clinics in large job hubs such as industrial food plants. The union told that this convenience has led to a 95 per cent vaccination rate in one of the plants their members work at.

Before the governments steps in, Ekhlas Smith expects there’ll be a patchwork of private companies offering their own incentives -- not mandates -- to get their employees to wait in COVID-19 vaccine lineups.

So far, Starbucks Canada is offering two hours of paid leave to get jabbed, with the Bank of Canada reportedly giving its employees three hours.

She said that she feels “companies that are really big or small ‘Mom and Pop’ shops,” will be some of the first ones to offer paid time off. And she urged the government not to simply leave the paid leave to private companies.