Opinion piece

Opinion: Many aren’t opting for paid sick leave

As the premiers and the prime minister haggle, yet again, about who should pay the country’s health-care bills, there’s a far more urgent and dangerous bill-paying quandary staring them in the face.

Many COVID-19 hot spots are in low-income neighbourhoods where residents are driven by home economics to head out to work every day – regardless of whether they feel under the weather and regardless of how exposed their workplaces may be to contagion.

In Toronto, data crunched by the Star shows that the second wave is mirroring the first wave, hitting poor parts of the city where people – many of them racialized – live in crowded housing and don’t dare take a chance of losing their daily wages.

In Montreal, a McGill University analysis shows a similar pattern.

Weren’t we supposed to be better prepared than this?

The first wave exposed so many vulnerabilities, and policy-makers at all levels were seized with fixing them.

As we emerged from the shock of the spring, it was obvious that it wasn’t only the elderly residents in long-term care who were on the front lines. It was also low-income workers, temporary employees, often women and often people of colour, working with the public. High-density, low-income neighbourhoods in cities – especially Toronto and Montreal – were at risk, in large part because workers couldn’t afford to turn down work, no matter how exposed they might be to contagion.

Government-funded paid sick leave quickly floated to the fore as a possible solution. Back in May, the federal NDP and B.C. Premier John Horgan were agitating for a program that would ensure anyone at all could stay home if they weren’t feeling well – and not worry about losing their job.

Even though some provinces had misgivings about federal intrusion in provincial jurisdiction, they eventually backed the call for a national program to allow up to 10 days of paid leave – as long as Ottawa would foot the bill.

The federal government set to work figuring out details for it over the summer. By September, it had a plan: the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, meant for anyone who had been told to self-isolate, or wasn’t feeling well and feared COVID-19, or had underlying health concerns that made going to work unsafe.

As long as you aren’t collecting paid leave from your employer at the same time or drawing down on other government benefits, you could get the sickness benefit and stay home. No doctor’s note required.

“Paid sick leave is an essential part of a country being able to muster an effective response to coronavirus, because only when you have sick leave can people stay home from work. We need people to stay home when they are unwell. Otherwise we will have another huge outbreak,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said in August when it was first announced.

But here we are again. Lockdowns and restrictions are stifling COVID-19 in the richest, whitest neighbourhoods, but are having much less effect in poorer neighbourhoods.

Local health authorities are piling in with mobile testing and the Ontario government has ramped up public health marketing in 18 different languages as well as funding for shelters and food banks.

And the federal sickness benefit is in place, open for applications since the beginning of October. So far, however, just 225,000 people have applied, drawing down $188 million.

That’s low, given that the second wave is surging. Ottawa has budgeted $2.6 billion for this fiscal year that ends in March, and said it expects up to five million people to apply over the course of a year.

The low uptake is a puzzle for the federal government, but it’s no surprise to Deena Ladd, who runs a hotline and action centre aimed at precarious workers. Nor is it a surprise to Chris Roberts, the director of social and economic policy at the Canadian Labour Congress.

Even with all the federal money and workplace safety rules in place, many low-wage workers still believe their livelihoods are at risk if they were to stay home sick, they both say, because the power relationship between boss and employee is stronger than any government benefit.

“Low-paid workers are having to make some very, very difficult choices,” said Roberts. “Many workers just don’t have the luxury of staying away from work.”

Part-timers, people who work for temp agencies and people who hold down multiple jobs fear they have too much to lose if they take time off for illness, Ladd said.

Part of the problem lies in the design of the federal benefit.

It comes in one-week chunks, so taking a day here to get tested or a couple days there to self-isolate eats up half the two-week entitlement, Ladd says. Plus, the benefit does not always offer enough money to make up for lost wages, Roberts added. And it has low visibility, so not very many disenfranchised workers know how to access it.

Those problems could be fixed by the federal government tweaking the design of the benefit, enriching it and marketing it further.

But tweaks won’t do much about the power relationship between boss and employee. That fix can only come through provincial governments enshrining stronger worker protections and employer-paid sick leave into law, both Ladd and Roberts say.

Which takes us back to the first ministers and their haggling over health-care transfers. The problem of COVID-19 raging in low-income neighbourhoods won’t wait for that eternal standoff to be resolved. The contagion is happening right now.

Heather Scoffield is a National Affairs writer.

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