In 2018, the newly-elected Ford government cancelled all mandatory paid sick days. Since then, health advocates and labour activists have been fighting to bring them back. In a global pandemic with a contagious virus, paid sick days are more vital than ever.
Over the past several months, many groups have called on the province to implement provincial paid sick days including the Toronto City Council, Toronto’s Board of Health, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, and the Ontario Medical Association.
Paid sick days allow workers who think they may be ill to stay home, recover, and reduce their chances of infecting others. As it stands, 58 per cent of Canadians don’t have access to a single sick day. This number jumps to 70 per cent for low wage workers.
In Ontario, workers including truck drivers, personal support workers, and food production workers don’t have access to paid sick days. “Workers without paid sick leave often feel forced to work when unwell so they can feed and support their families. Worse, many are also at risk of losing their jobs if they stay home” Samantha Hill, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said in a recent press release.
Since their cancellation in 2018, activist groups like the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Decent Work and Health Network have been fighting tirelessly to bring back paid sick days. This fight has found a new wave of support amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the first lockdown in March, essential workers have risked their health and safety to serve their communities. However, even through stay-at-home orders and declared states of emergency, Ontario workers are still not guaranteed the right to stay home when they’re sick without risking their employment or income.
As of November 2020, almost 8,000 Ontario workers filed for compensation after contracting COVID-19 at work. Essential workers who feel they have no option but to go to work when they might be sick fuels the spread of COVID-19 and has fueled workplace outbreaks of the virus across the province.
While paid sick days might seem like an obvious response to COVID-19, the province has long refused calls to bring them back. The Ontario government argues guaranteed paid sick days will overlap with the Canada Sickness Recovery Benefit (CSRB), a federal program that gives $500 a week to people who are unable to work due to sickness or self-isolation.
But sick day advocates and members of the government alike are concerned that having CSRB as the only available option doesn’t give Ontario’s essential workers enough protection to stay home while they’re sick. In a letter to Ontario’s provincial labour minister, the Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtroguh argued that “[e]nhancing provisions for paid sick leave within provincial jurisdictions is not duplicative of federal programs, but rather serve in a complementary manner, providing important options for Canadian workers.”
“The federal paid sick leave benefit is very cumbersome and workers—they have to apply for it. They have to know how to apply for it, have the ability to apply for it and they also have to wait,” Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, recently said. “If they are working part of the week, they don’t get paid by the federal paid sick leave benefits for that week. So it leaves them without any income during that time.”
Paid sick days have always been important for guaranteeing the health and safety of workers. In a pandemic, they’re even more essential.
As Hill said, “At a time where we are all working as hard as we can to reduce spread, and protect our most vulnerable, it’s unfathomable to ask to put workers in that position. Beyond being the right thing to do for the individual, paid sick days are essential for Ontario’s recovery and well-being.”
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