As of Thursday, April 22, more than 800 Ontarians are in ICUs and another 40 more have died of COVID-19 since yesterday. The third wave of the pandemic has clearly not peaked yet, and workplace outbreaks are part of the reason.
Despite the crisis, many essential workers are going in to work sick, for one reason: they need money to live, and the Ontario government still hasn’t implemented paid sick leave for the roughly 60% of Ontario workers who don’t have it.
During his Thursday news conference, Premier Doug Ford stated that his government is working on a sick leave plan that will “fill the gaps” in the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). That would be the wrong approach. There are far more active COVID-19 cases than there are people who are able to access CRSB benefits. The CRSB isn’t working, and it can’t be fixed.
Across Canada, there are 80,000 active cases of COVID-19—that we know of. No one knows how many additional people may have the disease, or have been exposed to it, and are still going into a workplace and coming into contact with others.
Ontario—and all provinces, for that matter—needs a paid sick leave program that is seamless and truly protects essential workers, many of whom are ending up in intensive care because they lack paid sick day coverage.
Regulating workplaces falls under provincial jurisdiction, and it is the duty of Queen’s Park to create a paid sick day plan. It’s not rocket science—a strong provincial sick leave plan can be created quickly by following a few basic principles:
1. Remember the purpose of paid sick leave
Paid sick leave is always about protecting the health of workers. In normal times, that means that people who are sick can stay home and recover, and if the nature of their illness is contagious, they can stay home and save their co-workers from getting sick as well.
But these are not normal times. During a pandemic, the stakes are many times higher—the result of unfettered COVID-19 is overburdened ICUs, sickness, and death. The goal of any sick leave program is, above all, to allow people who have COVID-19, have been exposed to it, or think they may have it, to stay home and not spread the disease to their co-workers. Nothing else matters.
2. Remember what actual sick leave looks like
Whatever sick leave program the government designs will be put together by people who already have real paid sick days.
Here’s how real sick leave works: You feel sick, or you have been exposed to COVID-19. You tell your employer. You stay home until you are better or until your quarantine period has passed. You continue to receive the same paycheque as if you were still at work.
Putting health at the centre of sick leave means putting workers at the centre, and that means any program must be just as simple and straightforward as the existing sick leave plans 40% of us enjoy.
3. Forget about fixing the CRSB
The CRSB is not a sick leave plan and it is not the foundation of a sick leave plan.
At its core, the CRSB is an employment insurance plan that requires workers to know about it, apply for it, qualify for it, wait for payment, and—except in rare cases—take a pay cut.
The only usable part of the CRSB is the money that the federal government has budgeted for it. More on that below.
As the death toll rises, protecting the health and safety of Ontarians remains the province’s solemn duty and most important task.
4. Pass legislation, quickly
To fight COVID-19, the province must pass legislation requiring that employers provide sick days, with no pay interruption, for any worker who calls in sick. Writing new paid sick leave legislation need not be complicated: it has existed before in Ontario, and very recently. Adapting the legislation to COVID-19 means that the paid sick leave must last at least as long as the quarantine period recommended by public health officials.
5. Create a fair plan for reimbursing employers where needed
Any employer who, in normal times, can’t afford to provide reasonable paid sick leave to its employees should not be in business in Ontario. But again, these are not normal times, and many businesses are already on the brink of closure due to COVID-19.
Any plan to compensate employers should involve a simple and accessible application process. However, given that many businesses are not only surviving the pandemic, but thriving, steps should be taken to ensure that payments to profitable businesses are clawed back. That can happen at tax time.
Some of the money to subsidize employers could come by negotiating a reallocation of CRSB funds with the federal government, if necessary, but since Premier Ford has stated repeatedly that he will “spare no expense” to protect the health of Ontarians, this is a non-issue. The priority here is to save lives, not dollars.
6. Tell everybody.
A sick leave program that no one knows about will fail. The province should promote the plan by every means available, from workplace posters to paid advertising to social media, in accessible formats and in every language Ontarians speak.
During his April 22 news conference, the premier promised Ontario’s new sick leave program would be the “best program in North America.” It is within his power to create exactly that, and to do it quickly.
While it will be too late for far too many people who have been stricken by COVID-19, it will still save lives. And as the death toll rises, protecting the health and safety of Ontarians remains the province’s solemn duty and most important task.