As provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said, employees should not be penalized for staying home, yet that’s exactly what happens to workers who don’t have access to paid sick leave.
Workers in B.C. without a union collective agreement have no paid sick leave rights under the Employment Standards Act — the provincial legislation that contains the minimum conditions of employment for all workers, such as minimum wage and statutory holidays with pay.
On March 23, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial government made two changes to the Employment Standards Act:
• provision for job-protected leave in the event that workers are unable to work for reasons directly relating to COVID-19;
• provision for up to three days of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for workers who cannot work due to other illness or injury.
However, recent events such as the discovery that 28 employees of United Poultry in Vancouver tested positive for the virus because employees who felt sick were worried about losing pay if they called in sick, demonstrate that the Employment Standards Act is still inadequate to provide vulnerable workers with appropriate rights and protections in the face of this crisis.
Responding to questions about the COVID-19 outbreak at United Poultry on April 22, Premier John Horgan stated that provincial benefits needed to be beefed up for sick employees, and that under the circumstances it was irresponsible for employees to report for work sick. But it is unfair to accuse sick workers of being irresponsible when they stand to lose income by not reporting for work in such circumstances. As provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said, employees should not be penalized for staying home, yet that is exactly what happens to workers who don’t have access to paid sick leave.
To date, there has been no government action on this issue. Clearly, the Employment Standards Act is inadequate to address the pressing need of providing all workers with a right to job-protected paid sick leave as a minimum condition of employment.
In addition, Employment Insurance sick leave benefit provisions are inadequate to discourage workers in low-paid precarious employment from reporting for work sick because of the restrictive eligibility requirements, low level of benefits and bureaucratic claims process. To be eligible for EI sick leave benefits, employees must have had 600 insured hours of employment in the 52 weeks prior to a claim, their normal weekly earnings reduced by 40 per cent, and provide proof of illness or injury by producing a medical certificate. And even if they qualify for the EI sick leave benefit, it amounts to only 55 per cent of their earnings, to a maximum of $573 a week, which is vastly inadequate for low-wage workers.
And while the new temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefit is nominally available to workers who are quarantined or sick due to COVID-19, it only covers those who miss so much work due to sickness that they earn $1,000 or less in a four-week benefit period. CERB does not cover lost pay for workers who stay home when they feel ill but it turns out to not be COVID-19 and they are able to return to work within a week or so, which is why we continue to see people reporting to work ill.
B.C.’s Employment Standards Act is years behind other developed countries that have legislated paid sick leave. At least 145 countries provide paid sick leave for short- or long-term illness. Many high-income economies require employers to provide paid sick days upwards of 10 days. In the U.S., there is a trend toward paid sick time, with 12 states now having adopted guaranteed paid sick days, including our neighbours on the West Coast — Washington, Oregon and California.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Employment Standards Act should provide for up to 21 days of job-protected paid sick leave for the duration of this public health emergency. Thereafter, permanent paid sick leave provision should be legislated so that workers accrue credits in a paid sick leave bank based on their annual hours worked, similar to that provided in Washington State.
It is now abundantly evident, as never before, that the universal right of workers to paid sick leave is an essential element of a comprehensive public health protection program.
David Fairey is a labour economist, research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, B.C. Office, and co-chair of the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition.