Paid sick leave critical to defeating COVID-19
Dr. Charles S. Shaver urges premiers to mandate benefit for all workers.
“There are a lot of things that would make a difference.
And making sure that people who are sick don't go to work is one of them.” – Dr. Isaac Bogoch, Toronto General Hospital.
To his credit, Ontario Premier Doug Ford with the latest lockdown has instituted an exposure-based protocol. “Hot zones” will be targeted with mobile vaccination teams visiting workplaces and neighbourhoods.
Half-measures will not suffice, for as Bogoch asserts, “Every expert has said that we are not going to vaccinate ourselves out of a third wave.”
Ford recently stated that local officials know their regions best and his support for their public health advice was “unwavering.” Yet, Ford should recall that Dr. David Williams, plus 34 public health units, have urged him to mandate paid sick leave.
Instead, referring to the temporary Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), he argued: “I'll repeat it for the hundredth time – there's a program already…we aren't going to duplicate and waste taxpayers' money.”
Sadly, the recent Ontario budget made no mention of paid sick leave.
More contagious, lethal COVID-19 variants are doubling in Canada every nine to 10 days and now account for most cases in Ontario.
With no domestic vaccine production until next year, cuts in supply chain, and the risk of export controls by the EU and India, our vaccination supply has been poor. Globally, we dropped as low as 64th in the immunization rate per capita.
Ford, Jason Kenney and several other premiers have not been using every potential tool in the toolbox and still ignore the greater problem over which they do have some control — workplace infections.
Two of the four firms with the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the GTA offer no paid sick leave.
About 58 per cent of Canadian workers lack adequate sick leave. A Peel Public Health study found that between August 2020 and January 2021, 25 per cent of workers with potential COVID-19 symptoms (including 80 persons who had tested positive for the virus) went to work anyway.
The premiers should thus set up additional self-isolation centres, make use of the 19 million rapid test kits already supplied by Ottawa and most importantly underwrite paid sick benefits to all physicians, nurses and health professionals, plus mandate paid sick leave for other workers.
Despite its defence by Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, the CRSB pays only $450 per week after taxes, even to the self-employed. On Feb. 19, it was extended to four weeks.
Unlike for paid sick days, persons must apply for any payment and reapply every week. It reimburses less than the minimum wage, does not cover those who wish a shorter leave and remittance may take several weeks.
This program is inadequate to replace the lost income of physicians, most nurses and many other health professionals.
As Deena Ladd of the Workers Action Centre asserted: “It needs to be seamless, it needs to be fast, it needs to be accessible, and it needs to be adequate.”
Even labour ministers from all but Quebec and the Yukon agree. A recent joint statement asserted: “The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit is a small step forward, but it falls far short of what is needed.”
Leaders of the Ontario NDP and Liberal party and most mayors agree.
By simply relying on the CRSB and not providing full sick benefits, Ford and many premiers risk prolonging the current third wave of COVID-19. In Canada, 9.5 per cent of COVID-19 cases are in health workers.
Infection rates are higher in MDS than in other health workers. Normally, physicians would rely on private insurance, but it fails to cover them for quarantine. Most provinces hence replace lost income for their physicians from Day 1 of self-isolation. Alberta and Ontario have left their physicians financially unprotected throughout the pandemic.
Many small businesses cannot afford to pay for sick leave.
The premiers should mandate adequate paid sick leave for all workers who would then no longer be reluctant to be tested and could afford to stay at home, if necessary.
This might help reduce the likelihood of more prolonged lockdowns with dire effects on the lives, mental and economic health of Canadians and the survival of small businesses.
The new federal budget sadly made no mention of enriching benefits in the CRSB.
As a result, Ford confirmed Thursday that his government would introduce a paid sick-leave program for workers.