Worker and patient advocates in multiple provinces are calling for permanent paid sick days, arguing that the federal COVID-19 sick leave benefit has too many restrictions for lower-income, precarious and migrant workers.
“The simple solution is for provinces to mandate paid sick days,” Katy Ingraham, an organizer for the grassroots advocacy group Canadian Restaurants Workers Coalition (CRWC), told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Ingraham, who also runs her own restaurant in Edmonton, said paid sick days would mean workers are “not worried about when they're going to see that money or how they're going to … pay for groceries, rent, heat, water, the necessities of life.”
Only 42 per cent of Canadian workers have access to paid sick days, with that rate dropping to around 10 per cent for low-wage workers, according to government figures.
Last year, the federal government introduced the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which was designed in part to counteract the fact that several provinces didn’t expand their own sickness benefits. The benefit provides $500 per week for up to four weeks and cannot be claimed if an employee has paid sick leave through their workplace.
But harsh criticism is coming from the CRWC, as well as the Ontario Federation of Labour and its counterparts in other provinces, who point out:
Workers can only apply if they’re sick with COVID-19, or if their employer or public health authority advises them to self-isolate;
They must be off sick for at least 50 per cent of their normal work week;
It’s restricted to workers who've earned at least $5,000 in 2019, 2020 or in the 12 months before the date they apply for the benefit;
And it’s temporary and tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because some workers don’t want their boss to retaliate against them for missing work, up to 25 per cent of them keep working despite feeling sick, according to a Peel Public Health study in Ontario of approximately 7,800 people with symptoms associated with COVID-19 between Aug. 2020 to Jan. 2021.
Others, such as migrant workers, have told CTV News they’ve felt unsafe at work but feel they have to keep working.
“They don’t have job security. So they’re very vulnerable and they’re scared to take time off. They fear they’re going to lose their jobs permanently to take any time off,” patient advocate and University of Toronto surgery resident Dr. Preet Brar told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Brar said that many minimum wage workers face increased pressure to show up even when they’re not feeling well in order to keep getting shifts. And she noted that she and her colleagues have seen such workers or their loved ones end up being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.
A January report from the left-leaning Broadbent Institute said those facing this increased risk include including “personal care workers forced to work shifts at multiple long-term care homes… [and] migrant farm workers living in abysmal conditions with little to no access to basic workers’ rights.”
She also said those who have paid sick days through work have an advantage over a lot of front-line workers, who do not. “If I feel like I have been exposed and I need to get tested, I take the day off and get paid,” Brar said.
She argues all workers should have access to paid leave even if they’re only sick for a few days -- with COVID-19 or not -- or as they await results of COVID-19 testing. Brar notes that workers don’t always know how many days they’ll need to take off beforehand.
While it’s possible for workers to receive the benefit via direct deposit as early as three days after applying, the payments can take much, much longer, Brar and Ingraham said based from the experiences of workers they know. And after all the time spent applying and taking precautions by staying home, workers might ultimately receive nothing if they don’t fit the criteria.
NEW AND TEMPORARY WORKERS NOT PROTECTED
Brar, who also advocates for vaccine prioritization of essential workers, said young workers are especially feeling the brunt of new COVID-19 cases lately, as older Canadians are getting vaccinated.
And, according to Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the CRSB “doesn't apply to workers who just started the job” because it requires them to have earned $5,000 in the past year.
He said this would include huge swaths of young workers -- such as those in the service industry who are the most likely to need the benefit.
Workers aren’t eligible for CRSB if they’re receiving paid leave from their employer. McGowan told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that is still the case “no matter how crappy” employers’ paid leave or disability plans are.
Registered nurse Carolina Jimenez said seeing the restrictions and gaps like these affecting her patients caused her to turn to advocacy as they’ve affected her ability to provide them care.
“When we tell patients or co-workers to stay home sick, it's a ‘prescription’ that can't be filled because a lot of them [won’t] have that financial income,” Jimenez, a member of Decent Work and Health Network, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. The group is a coalition of Ontario-based health providers who advocate for better employment conditions.
SICK DAYS ONLY TIED TO COVID-19
Restaurant owner Ingraham said while “it’s wonderful” the CRSB program exists, it’s not a substitute for federal paid sick days, such as those offered in European countries.
“When everything is back to normal, the wage subsidy isn't going to exist anymore. All of these other subsidies aren't going to exist,” Ingraham said. “We really need to urgently implement these and continue them even beyond the pandemic.”
McGowan agreed, calling the sickness benefit a “temporary Band-Aid,” especially since the benefits are only tied to COVID-19 and will only last until September 2021 -- unless the program is extended.
Jimenez also noted temporary workers and migrant workers in long-term care homes and farms -- some with no social insurance numbers -- will fall through the cracks of the federal sick leave benefits program.
But if provincial legislation existed that mandated sick days for all workers, it would mean “regardless of the workplace, regardless of immigration status, they would have access to this benefit,” Jimenez said.
And McGowan noted despite some workers facing multiple exposures in the workplace, the benefit is only available for a maximum of four weeks, which only accounts for two isolation periods.
“I know workers who have had to go into self-isolation for five or even six times over the last year. And that's particularly true in workplaces that are called hot spots, like long-term care facilities, meatpacking plants, schools and warehouses," he said.
“What we need is real paid sick leave that allows workers to do what health professionals are telling them to do, which is stay home when they're not feeling well, even if they don't know whether or not it's COVID,” McGowan said.