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Why the hold up on paid sick days? It’s about power.


Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Amid a raging pandemic, how do Canadian workers still not have paid sick days as a basic right of employment? It’s about power. 

Real paid sick days, as a right of employment, are not rocket science. You tell your boss you’re sick, you stay home and you get paid as usual. But a majority of Canadians don’t have access to paid sick days, including nine out of ten low-income workers in BC.

The federal temporary sickness benefit introduced last fall is a poor alternative. That program requires an after-the-fact application, you must be off for the majority of a given week to qualify, it pays less than minimum wage and there’s a delay before you’re paid. 

Doctors, public health officials, labour leaders and policy experts increasingly see the imperative of employer-paid sick days. A strong majority of the public agrees. The BC Employment Standards Coalition has called for provincial employment law to guarantee 21 paid sick days for all workers during the pandemic and seven days per year on a permanent basis. 

Employer-paid sick days not only benefit workers themselves, but also their co-workers and society more broadly—as the pandemic has shown so starkly—with workplace outbreaks a key source of COVID-19 transmission. Pandemic or not, paid sick time should be considered a basic right under provincial employment standards law, period. 

What about small businesses that are struggling during the pandemic? This is a real concern, but the federal and provincial governments could easily cover the costs of paid sick days for those struggling small businesses as a transitional measure. 

With strong expert and public backing for paid sick days, who would stand in the way? The corporate lobby and low wage employers.

From the beginning of the pandemic, corporate lobby groups saw that permanent, legislated paid sick days might result from the crisis, and they’ve been busy lobbying against it since.

In May 2020, 21 corporate lobby groups—including the Business Council of BC, BC Chamber of Commerce and Retail Council of Canada—sent two joint letters to the federal government. They pushed for a temporary federal program similar to the inadequate one that was later announced, aiming to avoid the more obvious step of legislating paid sick days under provincial law. 

The lobby groups hammered home their view that any pandemic sick pay must be “sunset” when the pandemic ends (even bolding and underlining “sunset”).

To date, the corporate lobby groups have largely got what they wanted from governments across Canada regardless of political stripe, despite the unprecedented public health crisis. 

Under mounting public pressure, Ontario Premier Doug Ford last week announced that his government will bring in a paltry three paid sick days only until September. BC Premier John Horgan has finally signalled his government will bring in a permanent policy, but details remain scarce.

The fact that we’re over a year into the pandemic and still without paid sick days for all workers tells us something about the power that corporate lobby groups and low wage employers wield in our politics.

It also stands out that, among BC workers, two thirds of those in a union have access to paid sick days, compared to only a third of those without one. Moreover, unions have been leaders in the broader fight for legislated paid sick days for all workers regardless of union membership. 

In low wage workplaces, and in our politics, employers hold a lot of the cards. But that’s not inevitable. Organized workers can change the game and change the balance of power. 

Alex Hemingway is a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office.

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