The Day of Mourning is April 28. The time for paid sick leave is now

For labour activists, it’s a sombre occasion—sadness layered over a base of quiet anger. But this year that anger won’t be quiet. Not a chance.

April 21, 2021

2-minute read

In the past 13 months, COVID-19 has added an extra hazard to every workplace in Canada. The pandemic is a public health crisis, but it’s also the biggest occupational health and safety crisis of our time. People are getting sick at work and dying. Their family members are getting sick and dying, too.

During the week of April 4 to 10, public health units reported a total of 885 ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario hospitals, schools, stores, warehouses, farms, and other workplaces.

Workplace illnesses and deaths are preventable, yet when it comes to COVID-19, our elected leaders have failed to take some very basic measures—most obviously, legislating paid sick days for all workers.

This is inexcusable. It’s reckless disregard for the health and safety of Ontarians.

To date, Premier Doug Ford has defended his vehement opposition to paid sick leave by saying that workers already have it, pointing to the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). “There’s paid sick leave from the federal government,” he said this month, urging people to stop “playing politics” with the issue.

But nobody is playing politics here. We’re talking about policy. A policy that would save lives.

The CRSB is not paid sick leave; as structured, it’s really an employment insurance program. Like EI, you have to be eligible for it, you have to apply for it, you have to wait to get paid, and—oh, by the way—it comes with a pay cut.

Rather than allowing workers to call in sick, the CRSB has become political cover for premiers across the country who refuse to implement the real thing.

Rather than allowing workers to call in sick, the CRSB has become political cover for premiers across the country who refuse to implement the real thing.

It has also given many Canadians the impression that the federal government is responsible for regulating workplaces, e.g., how sick leave works. It’s not: 94% of jobs in Canada are provincially regulated. Except in a few cases—6% of them—Ottawa can’t compel employers to let sick employees stay home with pay. Only the provinces can do that. The peculiar design of the CRSB is an attempt to work around that fact.

Meanwhile, workers are getting sick and dying because they have to go into work. They can’t afford not to.

The estimated 40% of Ontarians who have paid sick leave know how it’s supposed to work: you feel sick, you tell your employer, you stay home. If we truly want to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19, any provincial sick leave plan must be just that simple.

The provincial government has a duty of care toward all Ontarians and, at a very basic level, a responsibility to protect our health and safety. To try and fail is one thing; to fail to try is negligent.

As public anger boils over, the government may start trying. At the time of writing, there are sounds coming out of Queen’s Park that suggest the province will do something (it’s not clear what) to make paid sick leave more easily available. That sounds positive, but it’s exactly what government MPPs voted against this week.

We’ll have to wait and see what the government proposes. In the meantime, the Day of Mourning isn’t just on April 28. It’s every day.

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