Paid sick leave long overdue, labour federation says


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Staying home to nurse a fever, sniffles or an ailing child is becoming increasingly difficult for Manitoba workers to afford as the province resists appeals by labour groups to legislate paid sick leave.

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Staying home to nurse a fever, sniffles or an ailing child is becoming increasingly difficult for Manitoba workers to afford as the province resists appeals by labour groups to legislate paid sick leave.

Manitoba Federation of Labour executive director Anna Rothney said the Progressive Conservative government has demonstrated a “disappointing” lack of action since April 2021, when the organization first called for legislation guaranteeing 10 paid sick days annually.

“This really shouldn’t be a political or partisan issue,” Rothney said. “This is a public-health issue.”

Rothney said the need for legislated, paid leave couldn’t be more urgent, as hospitals face intense pressure from the spread of respiratory viruses and Manitobans tighten their budgets in response to 40-year-high inflation.

Provincial public-health officials continue to recommend people stay home when ill.

“Making sure that people have paid sick leave, so they don’t have to make the choice between getting a paycheque and being able to pay their bills, or protecting public health, is really important,” she said.

MFL wants the question referred to the labour-management review committee by Labour Minister Reg Helwer, she said.

“But so far there’s been no movement, no progress,” she said.

Few provinces and territories require employers to cover wages for sick workers. However, federally regulated, private-sector workers are now getting up to 10 paid sick days a year.

Legislation passed by the Trudeau government extending the benefit to about 945,000 people, or six per cent of Canadian workers, came into force last month.

Among the provinces, only Quebec, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia have legislated paid sick leave. Quebec workers get two paid sick days after three months; workers in P.E.I. with five continuous service years get one paid sick day annually.

Last year, the NDP government in B.C. determined five paid and three unpaid sick days each calendar year was the right approach.

Ontario and Yukon, meanwhile, have extended their temporary pandemic sick leave programs to the end of March.

Manitoba’s pandemic sick leave program expired last March with a final price tag of $10.7 million. It rebated employers up to $600 to cover wages of sick employees.

The province said approximately 28,850 workers from more than 4,300 different employers benefited.

For 30-year-old Maria, the sick leave program allowed her to stay home while recovering from COVID-19 without losing a chunk of her monthly income.

“If I’m sick, I just don’t make money,” said the Winnipeg woman, asking that her last name not be used. “That can mean a whole week of no pay.”

The casual worker, who pieces together full-time hours with multiple child and family services agencies, said prior to the pandemic she would push through a cold to show up for work.

Now, she said clocking in with a sniffle is not acceptable, but she has no benefits to fall back on. It’s outrageous to leave thousands of Manitobans without that support, she said.

“After the messaging of the last few years, you’re not putting your money where your mouth is,” she said of the government. “You’re appealing to people to do the responsible thing and don’t go out if you’re sick, but what if people have to pay for their groceries?”

Robert Chernomas, a University of Manitoba professor specializing in health economics, said legislated paid-sick leave is good for population health, business and is a competitive advantage in tight labour market.

“Sometimes governments have to impose on businesses what’s in their interest,” Chernomas said.

Paid sick leave has the potential to boost productivity while promoting healthy work environments and ensures workers’ basic needs continue to be met, he said. It also cuts down on employee turnover and supports lower-income earners, who are more vulnerable to illness.

Chernomas described Ottawa’s approach as the “public sector doing something in the public good,” but said he doubts it will spur Manitoba’s PC government to follow suit.

“This should be legislated, universal and not temporary,” he said. “That would be best for the economy.”

However, small-business owners have concerns about their ability to absorb the cost of legislated paid sick leave, Canadian Federation of Independent Business Prairies director Kathleen Cook said.

Many businesses are still carrying debt and recovering from the pandemic amid rising inflation and interest rates, Cook said.

“If the provincial government were considering legislating employer-paid sick days, we would urge them to also implement measures to offset this added cost to small businesses, such as tax reductions and credits,” she said.

Helwer, who announced Friday that he will not be running in the next provincial election scheduled for Oct. 3, was not made available for an interview

“The Manitoba government regularly assesses many labour policy questions and does not emphatically rule out any approach to ensure the province’s labour laws meet the needs of employers and workers,” Helwer’s spokesperson said in a statement.

The department is consulting other provinces on “perspectives and approaches to paid sick days” to decide if the labour-management review committee should consider the subject.

“A specific question needs to be referred to (the committee),” the spokesperson said. “The question ‘should Manitoba have paid sick days’ is far too broad.”

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.


Updated on Monday, January 9, 2023 6:50 AM CST: Adds images

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