A person at work while engaging in public health measures.
A person at work while engaging in public health measures. Credit: engin akyurt / Unsplash Credit: engin akyurt / Unsplash

After running on a platform that presented their party as labour friendly, there has yet to be an official announcement that the Progressive Conservatives will extend the Worker Income Protection Benefit Program. The program, which legislates three paid sick days for workers who miss work for reasons related to COVID-19, will expire on July 31. 

As the expiry date looms, workers across the province are feeling the growing anxiety. 

“I don’t feel at ease at all,” said Yolanda McClean, Secretary Treasurer for the Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in an interview with rabble.ca. “That’s not just a personal feeling by the way. I’m sure many people are feeling uneasy as we’re going into the seventh wave.” 

McClean said that when workers do not have access to paid sick days, they are faced with a choice between putting food on the table and staying home to reduce transmission of an illness. 

“How do you choose between necessities and necessities?” McClean asked.

Without sick days, McClean says workers don’t have the opportunity to care for themselves, perform their work tasks properly or protect their communities.

Make them permanent, make them universal

CUPE along with many other labour unions and organizations have been calling for the government to legislate ten permanent and universal paid sick days. 

Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), said that workers can afford to stay home to protect themselves and their communities with paid sick leave. Working while sick increases transmission of illnesses and can lead to injury, she said. According to Coates, workers with paid sick days are 28 per cent less likely to get injured at work. 

“Providing universal, adequate and permanent, paid sick days is just good public policy. Plain and simple,” Coates said. “At the OFL, we did a poll last spring identifying that 83 per cent of Ontarians across the political spectrum agree that Ontario needs permanent paid sick days.” 

The widespread support of paid sick days may be propelled by the challenges many different work sectors are facing without them. 

According to JP Hornick, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), when people go to work sick it affects the quality of the service they are delivering. Hornick said this applies across all professions, workers in colleges, long term care homes and on the frontline of the pandemic are affected.

Lack of sick days strains health care system

Catherine Hoy, provincial president of the Ontario Nurses Association, said that the lack of paid sick leave is exacerbating the nursing shortage. 

Hoy explained that many healthcare workers are exposed to COVID-19 and other illnesses regularly due to the nature of their work. When legislated sick days run out or cannot be accessed, workers are still choosing to isolate themselves to protect the people they work with at the cost of their paycheck. 

“They [health care professionals] were forced to self isolate, to keep other people safe,” Hoy said, “but they were penalized by not getting a paycheck for that. This is part of the reason that people are leaving the profession.”

Hoy said that some reprieve could exist for nurses if their employers accepted calls to have paid sick leave in contracts. 

“It has been a bargaining constant,” Hoy said. 

Despite ONA’s efforts to get paid sick days through bargaining, securing paid sick leave looks bleak as Bill 124 limits the increase of compensation to workers at one per cent each year. This limit includes benefits. 

With bargaining, the solution lies in legislation. Coates of the OFL said legislated paid sick days are beneficial for more workers since they also apply to those not represented by a union.

“Unionization rate is around 30 per cent or just below 30 per cent,” Coates said. “So you’ve got 70 per cent of workers that don’t have those same protections. We need to continue to fight for them. We need to continue to push the government to bring in permanent paid sick days.” 

There is also a strong business case for paid sick days, according to Aaron Binder from the Better Way Alliance, a network of businesses dedicated to ethical practices in Canada. Binder said that while the up front cost of paid sick days may seem large, it saves money in the long run. 

“Whether it’s COVID, flu, or any other kind of transmissible disease or cold, having one employee out sucks, but having five employees out, your business is shut down,” Binder said. 

Legislating paid sick days is one of many issues that the labour movement is united on, it is also one that small businesses and Ontarians in general are united behind. The public has made it clear that legislated paid sick days would be a policy many would support, whether the Progressive Conservatives will act on this call remains to be seen.

Gabriela Calugay-Casuga

Gabriela “Gabby” Calugay-Casuga (she/they) is a writer and activist based in so-called “Ottawa.” They began writing for Migrante Ottawa’s radio show, Talakayang Bayan, in 2017. Since then, she...