Paid sick leave needed as viruses persist
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Manitoba’s continuing refusal to consider the pressing need for a paid sick-leave law has become an exercise in bad timing.
Respiratory illnesses — including COVID-19 — continue to rampage through the population, threatening to overwhelm the health-care system and upending the ability of businesses of all size to staff their operations. At the same time, employers are also bearing the burden of a shortage of skilled workers in many industries and sectors.
Faced with all of those challenges, Premier Heather Stefanson’s Progressive Conservative government has gone dark on the issue of paid sick leave.
Like most provinces, Manitoba instituted a paid sick-leave support program during the first two years of the pandemic, providing up to $600 to cover the wages of employees who were too sick to work. However, that program was discontinued last March, despite its popularity among employers and its relatively modest price tag of $10.7 million.
That decision puts Manitoba into a growing group of provinces that are abandoning paid sick-leave support.
Prince Edward Island’s COVID-19 sick-leave program expired at the end of 2022. Ontario, which provided up to $200 per day per employee, for up to three sick days, will terminate its program March 31.
At the same time, other provinces have instituted permanent paid sick-leave provisions in the wake of COVID-19 supports. British Columbia now guarantees five paid days, and Quebec had a program before the pandemic that provides for two paid days.
Meanwhile, the federal government introduced legislation last year guaranteeing up to 10 paid sick days for workers in federally regulated industries such as financial services, communications and transportation.
Ottawa has said it would like all the provinces to join them in providing 10 days’ paid sick leave, given that it has become a critical economic issue. Workers who insist on coming into work while sick are a huge drag on productivity. And workers in jobs with no paid sick leave have less money to pump into the economy.
Ottawa has said it would like all the provinces to join them in providing 10 days’ paid sick leave, given that it has become a critical economic issue.
On the positive side of the equation, employers with sick-leave benefits enjoy greater productivity and find it easier to recruit and retain skilled workers.
It is very difficult to get a firm fix on the number of Canadians who do not have paid sick leave, but most experts agree only half of the country’s labour force has access to some sort of mandated or employer-provided program. That leaves millions of workers facing difficult choices at a time when respiratory viruses are causing unprecedented levels of disruption.
When they eliminated all pandemic restrictions last year, Canada’s provinces, including Manitoba, were insistent that we “learn to live with COVID-19.” If that is to be our fate, we should have adequate supports in place to ensure we can take time off work while “living with” this insidious virus.
It is very difficult to get a firm fix on the number of Canadians who do not have paid sick leave, but most experts agree only half of the country’s labour force has access to some sort of mandated or employer-provided program.
A simple mandate to employers would only solve part of the problem, however. The cost of paid sick leave is a burden to all employers, particularly smaller businesses with lower margins. Provincial governments need to dig deep to find a balance that involves both mandated time off and financial supports.
Direct government subsidies worked well through the first two years of the pandemic. Perhaps tax credits or the ability to write off paid sick leave as a business expense could also be in the mix.
Whatever the combination of solutions, provinces would be well advised to abandon their penny-wise, pound-foolish attitudes and take steps to support sick workers and their employers. And the sooner, the better.