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Will B.C. enact a robust paid sick days plan, or will corporate power derail it?

BY ALEX HEMINGWAY

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

British Columbians are on the cusp of winning a meaningful right to paid sick days—if the powerful corporate lobby doesn’t get its way.

Paid sick days are common sense and already a right of workers in many advanced democracies around the world. It’s simple. If you’re sick, you stay home and get paid by your employer as usual. This means not only taking care of yourself, but avoiding the spread of illness to co-workers, their families and the community, which also has an economic cost.

B.C. implemented a temporary paid sick days policy in the spring at the height of the third wave, mandating a paltry three days—and only for COVID-19-related absences. But a permanent plan will be enacted in January 2022, and the government recently launched a survey asking British Columbians to weigh in on the choice between three, five or 10 paid sick days a year.

At minimum, British Columbians should have 10 paid days per year as a basic right of employment. Recent polling shows massive public support for this approach, which is backed by 86 per cent of British Columbians as well as groups like the BC Employment Standards Coalition and the BC Federation of Labour.

This would be in line with other advanced democracies like New Zealand and Australia where workers can take 10 employer-paid sick days. It would still fall short of stronger protections in countries like Sweden (14 days) and Germany (30 days). 

Canada has long been a laggard on this front, but the federal government has committed to 10 employer-paid sick days for all workers in federally regulated industries. There is no reason for BC to enact less for the large majority of workers who fall under provincial employment standards law.

Most B.C. workers don’t have access to paid sick days today. Those with low wages are the worst off: nearly 90 per cent with incomes below $30,000 have no paid sick days. 

Given overwhelming public support for a right to paid sick days, why has the B.C. government been so stingy in its policy even in the midst of a global pandemic? It’s about power. From the beginning of the pandemic, corporate lobby groups foresaw that permanent, legislated paid sick days as a right of employment might be coming and have been lobbying hard against it ever since. You can bet they are working behind the scenes to limit the number of paid sick days BC ultimately legislates.

The bottom line is that unless compelled to do otherwise by law, collective bargaining or other means of organization by the working class, low-wage employers will concede very little. While research shows minimal effects of paid sick days policies on actual employer costs, the business models of low-wage employers depend on a pool of workers being kept in a state of economic insecurity and desperation. That’s why they have also been anxious to limit support to unemployed workers. 

But workers are fighting back. The B.C. Federation of Labour has led the charge for legislating 10 paid sick days, advocating for the rights of all workers regardless of union membership. It stands out that among BC workers, two thirds of those in a union already have access to paid sick days, compared to only a third of the non-unionized.

With public opinion overwhelmingly behind the right to 10 employer-paid sick days, the question is whether the BC government will do what’s right for workers — and our collective health and safety.

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

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