Paid sick days must become accessible to all

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ON Dec. 13, 2021, as Omicron cases started to spike, the Manitoba government extended its pandemic paid sick leave program to March 31, 2022. The program provides up to $600 for a total of five work days to workers who do not currently have paid sick days through their employer.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/01/2022 (311 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ON Dec. 13, 2021, as Omicron cases started to spike, the Manitoba government extended its pandemic paid sick leave program to March 31, 2022. The program provides up to $600 for a total of five work days to workers who do not currently have paid sick days through their employer.

This is the majority of workers in Manitoba, according to pre-pandemic statistics.

The pandemic sick leave program comes with significant hurdles. It’s voluntary and employer-driven, which means employers need not inform their workers about the program, let alone provide it if they become sick. In workplaces where there is a culture of working sick, or where workers fear job loss or reprisals if they take time off, the program is not meaningfully accessible.

The Winnipeg Free Press has highlighted several examples of such workplaces in Manitoba.

Meanwhile, the province has done precious little to enforce COVID-19 measures and policies, such as the sick leave program, to prevent workplace spread. In June 2021, more than a month after the program was announced, doctors and unions continued to hear from workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job and felt unable to quarantine.

Despite thousands of workplace health and safety inspections, zero employers were fined. Even during lockdowns, workplaces that are not public-facing, such as factories, are largely allowed to continue operations, despite risks to workers. Unsurprisingly, the list of outbreaks in workplaces continues to grow.

The province reports that more than 16,000 workers have benefited from the program, yet the job sector and characteristics of these workers are not disclosed. This raises questions around which workers benefit from a program that relies on the green light from employers, and how many eligible workers lack meaningful access.

Stories from migrant-worker advocates reveal that eight months into the program, many migrant workers are either unaware of the program or unsure how to access it. In a recent conversation with Karen Hamilton, program co-ordinator with the MFL Occupational Health Centre, she explains: “The province’s program is convoluted for workers. It’s pretty unrealistic for precarious migrant workers to inform their employers about the program so they can access it.”

Migrant workers who are under intense pressure to send remittances to family abroad have an especially hard time taking time off. Migrant justice advocates also point to financial insecurity that requires workers to tolerate unsafe workplaces, carpool and live in multi-family homes as central factors in the disproportionately high COVID-19 rates in these communities.

In the first year of the pandemic, outbreaks in factories and plants that employ large numbers of precarious migrant workers were identified, despite patchy provincial reporting.

The pandemic has taught us that workplace health is public health. The program is far from universal, and ultimately fails the vulnerable, and often essential, workers who need paid sick days most. Its effectiveness in curbing community spread — from the workplace outward — is limited.

Right now, with virus transmission at its highest, we need measures that protect all workers, especially those most vulnerable on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Researchers and unions are calling for legislated, employer-provided sick days. A recent research report on paid sick days, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia office, outlines direct benefits to employers. Employer-provided paid sick days are correlated with higher worker productivity, fewer workplace injuries and enhanced worker retention.

Broadbent Institute researchers have also argued that such legislation prevents interruptions in workers’ pay, incentivizes employers to comply with workplace and public-health policies and, like vacation days, enshrines paid sick days as employment standards rather than emergency measures.

Increasing the number of paid sick days from five to 10 is widely recommended, as well. According to the CCPA-Nova Scotia report, this allows workers to access health services, recover from illness, comply with public-health directives and support family or loved ones to do the same.

It’s time for Manitoba to do the right thing by vulnerable workers, by investing in the long-term safety and well-being of all Manitoba residents. Other jurisdictions in Canada set the precedent: Quebec and Prince Edward Island already legislate employer-provided paid sick days.

The Canada Labour Code is currently being amended to provide 10 paid sick days to all federally regulated private-sector workers. Legislating universal, employer-paid, adequate, permanent and accessible sick days is an essential piece of an equitable pandemic recovery.

Mary Jean Hande is a CCPA – Nova Scotia senior researcher and a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Saint Vincent University. She currently leads a research project on immigrant home-care workers in Manitoba.

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