Opinion: New federal sickness benefit falls way short amid COVID-19

Workers in Canada will have access to a federal paid sick leave benefit, but it doesn’t go far enough.

The new Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit applies to people unable to work because they have or may have COVID-19 or must self-isolate for reasons related to COVID. It also applies to people undergoing treatments, people with underlying health conditions or people who are sick and therefore more susceptible to COVID-19.

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The federal government finally announced the benefit after B.C. Premier John Horgan led the provinces in calling for a federally funded program for employees without paid sick leave. It is part of the Canada Recovery Benefits Act, which unanimously passed a House of Commons confidence vote on Sept. 29. 

The majority of workers in Canada (58%) don’t have employer-paid sick leave and the number jumps to over 70% for those earning less than $25,000. Since the onset of the pandemic, people who cannot afford to lose income have been put in the position of needing to go to work sick. Lives have been lost as a result of COVID outbreaks at worksites, including three Mexican farmworkers in Ontario, two employees of a meat-packing plant in Alberta and many residents of long-term care facilities across the country.

The BC Employment Standards Coalition and the Retail Action Network, which called for paid sick days for years before the pandemic started, believe the new federal program is inadequate and falls short of protecting workers for a number of reasons. 

Too much uncertainty in the program may leave workers reluctant to use it. People waking up sick won’t know if they’ll be eligible for the federal benefit because they can only apply for the benefit the week after they take sick leave. Then there will be a further wait for the government to respond. This may especially be a barrier for those in precarious, low-paying jobs and for migrant workers sending money to support their families.

Under the new benefit, workers may be entitled to as much as $500/week for up to two weeks (10 work days). However, the taxable benefit is a wage loss for BC workers because the minimum wage is $14.60 per hour (i.e. $584 per week).

Moreover, to be eligible, an employee must have missed at least 50% of the time they would have otherwise worked in the week for which they claim the benefit. Eligibility is also an issue since the program requires a valid social insurance number. This means migrant and undocumented residents (many of whom work in essential jobs such as caregivers, cleaners and food service workers) may be excluded. 

Finally, the federal program is only temporary with no permanent paid sick leave plan and unless a worker’s sickness is COVID-19 related there is no corresponding employment sick leave protection under the BC Employment Standards Act, exposing workers to potential discipline for staying home sick.

Protecting workers (and the public) now and in a post-pandemic future requires permanent paid sick days under the BC Employment Standards Act, the law that sets minimum work conditions. We need paid sick day protection requiring employers to pay workers who must stay home due to sickness for up to 21 days during COVID and after the pandemic for up to seven days per year for other types of sickness. The federal government’s role should be limited to providing relief to those employers who do not have the ability to absorb sick leave wage costs.

Kaitlyn Matulewicz is executive director of the Retail Action Network and David Fairey is co-chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC office research associate.


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