“What we need to do is bring (transmission) down and we can’t do that if people go to work with symptoms, or if they go to work while they’re waiting five days to get a test, or if they go to work because they can’t afford to stay home and not get paid while isolating.” – Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley
She is proposing that Alberta offer ten days of paid leave, with Ottawa paying the provincial government, which in turn would cover employers. As Alberta’s per capita rate of active COVID-19 cases is the worst in the country, this is long overdue. It should learn from what has occurred in Ontario.
With a surge in new COVID-19 cases and record numbers of patients requiring admission to ICUs, Ontario has imposed new restrictions, including closing border crossings with Quebec and Manitoba. Ontario even requested assistance from the Red Cross and the Canadian military.
However, there was again no mention of paid sick leave.
Globally, Canada ranks in the bottom quarter at providing sick leave. In Quebec, two paid sick days per year are legally required after three months of employment. Those in federally-controlled industries such as banking and telecommunications are permitted three days. Prince Edward Island provides a token one day after five years of employment. Ontario used to require two, but this was repealed by Premier Doug Ford in 2018.
A few weeks ago Ford stated that local officials knew their regions best, and his support for their public health advice was “unwavering.” Yet chief public health officer David Williams and all 34 public health units repeatedly called for paid sick leave at least for essential workers.
Instead, for months, Ford argued that the problems were a poor supply of vaccines and a lack of border controls – both due to the federal government.
He is only partly correct, and ignores the problem of workplace infection, over which he does have some control.
We now rank 57th globally in per capital vaccinations. In several provinces, vaccines are being targeted to “hot zones.” The situation may slowly improve. However, even mass vaccinations will not rapidly terminate the pandemic. As Dr. Isaac Bogoch of the Toronto General Hospital stated, “Every expert has said that we are not going to vaccinate ourselves out of a third wave. There are a lot of things that would make a difference. And making sure that people who are sick don’t go to work is one of them.”
Ford, following his own period of self-isolation, appears to have undergone a remarkable “conversion on the road to Damascus.” He noted, “I assure you that it is not lost on me that I am able to isolate and keep working. For too many people right now, that is not the case.”
He had been relying on the temporary Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. As he earlier asserted, “There’s a program already – We aren’t going to duplicate and waste taxpayers’ money.” Because the CRSB was not improved in the new federal budget, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott announced that she would finally consider a provincial program. However, details are lacking.
Of note is that the CRSB pays only $450 per week after taxes (less than minimum wage), persons must apply every week, it does not cover shorter leave times, and remittance may take several weeks.
Nearly 10 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada are in health workers, and infection rates are higher in physicians. Last year, most provinces agreed to cover their MDs during periods of self-isolation or illness from the coronavirus, including Manitoba which did so in December. Alberta and Ontario have still refused.
Ford and some others fear that small businesses might not be able to afford this.
In order to fund paid sick leave for the provinces and territories, Ottawa might consider redirecting some of its stimulus spending in the new federal budget.
Across Canada, for the premiers to do a 180-degree shift on granting paid sick leave not only makes sense from a public health standpoint, but also for political reasons.
Jason Kenney and the other premiers should learn from what has occurred in Ontario. They should immediately mandate sufficient paid sick leave for all workers. Ottawa should provide funding to the provinces and territories so as to provide adequate sick benefits to MDs, nurses, and other health professionals, especially while they are awaiting to be fully vaccinated.
Their policy shift will almost certainly be respected.
Ottawa physician Dr. Charles S. Shaver was born in Montreal. He is past-chair of the Section on General Internal Medicine of the Ontario Medical Association.