New federal sick leave benefits no replacement for permanent paid sick days, say advocates

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Despite the recently announced federal paid sick leave benefits for those taking time off related to COVID-19, there is still a need for permanent paid sick days, say advocates.

Carolina Jimenez, a registered nurse and the co-ordinator of the Decent Work and Health Network, said the federal government's Thursday announcement of new sick leave benefits does not change that. 

"This definitely won't close the gap because it's not paid sick days. It's COVID-19 related income support," said Jimenez.

In a press release, the BC Federation of Labour said the same, calling the benefits "no substitute for permanent paid sick leave that all workers need."

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit will provide $500 a week for up to two weeks for workers who do not have access to paid sick leave through their employer, and who must take time off because they are sick or self-isolating due to COVID-19. 

The Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, also at $500 a week, will be available to those who must stay home to care for any children under 12 whose school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19, or whose child must stay home under the advice of a medical professional. These benefits are expected to come into effect on September 27, and the program will last one year. 

The program is a welcome start, said Jimenez, but she is concerned that the measure might halt the conversation around paid sick days, and ultimately disincentivize provinces to legislate paid sick days into employment standards. 

Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said that permanent paid sick days are still needed. Walton said sick days are needed for all workers, but as September draws nearer, shared concerns about the lack of paid sick days for education workers, such as casual custodians. 

"While I think [the federal benefit] is a great beginning, at the end of the day, it really needs to come down to the provincial government," she said in an interview. 

The specificity to COVID-19, combined with the temporary nature of the benefits, as well as barriers to accessing the benefits are all concerns for Jimenez. 

"We're coming up on flu season and we need everyone to have the ability to stay home. We know that paid sick days are really critical for accessing preventative services, for decreasing health-care costs, so in terms of the scope of this we need it to be beyond COVID-19," she said. 

Jimenez said that any barriers to accessing the paid sick leave benefit could mean workers still go to work sick, or send their children to school sick because they cannot stay home to care for them. 

Any sort of administrative burden like needing a sick note, or the possibility of an interruption in wages, can be deterrents to taking time off work, she said. As of yet, it's unclear how quickly the federal sick leave benefits will be administered. 

"People need to have these days automatically. There's so many people living paycheque to paycheque, and losing wages can really make the difference even temporarily. Ultimately it's not going to have the same public health impact," Jimenez said. 

Paid sick leave tied to reducing illness in schools

Without permanent paid sick leave, parents working precarious, low wage jobs are more likely to send their kids to school sick, where one sick child can easily spark a school-wide outbreak of disease, said public health specialists and educators at a Wednesday press conference.

"In a normal school year in public health we get called about flu outbreaks, outbreaks of diarrhea, all kinds of different things," said Dr. Monika Dutt, a family physician and public health specialist. 

"I think we really need to look at an adequate number of permanent days to cover both COVID-19 as well as the other illnesses and health conditions that people deal with," she said. 

A report released by the Decent Work and Health Network recommended that federal and provincial governments mandate seven permanent paid sick days and 14 paid sick days during public health emergencies such as the current pandemic. The federal sick leave benefit is available for a maximum of two weeks, and the federal caregiving benefit is available for up to 26 weeks for those eligible.

The report, released Wednesday, stated that 58 per cent of workers in Canada are without permanent paid sick leave. It also cited a 2017 study that found parents with permanent paid sick leave were 20 per cent less likely to send their sick children to school, reducing outbreaks of influenza. 

As it stands now, to qualify for the caregiving benefit, workers must have been unable to work 60 per cent of their scheduled work for the week. 

However, parents engaged in precarious work might still not be able to afford to take one day off work to care for a sick child, much less be able to leave work in the middle of their shift to pick up their sick child from school. Doing so could come at the expense of getting fired -- a substantial blow to an already economically precarious family. 

"Our policies also instruct schools to send students home with a parent or guardian as soon as they begin exhibiting signs of COVID-19 at school. Unless every parent in Ontario has access to paid sick days, this essential public health advice will be impossible for us to follow," said Sarah Vance, a Toronto high school teacher going into her tenth year of teaching. 

Vance has seen the impact that a lack of permanent paid sick days can have on families, their kids and the broader school community. She said whether the federal paid sick leave benefit will curb outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools remains to be seen.   

"As soon as you have these application stipulations, rules and guidelines, you begin to cut out so many different workers. That's a significant concern for sure," said Vance.

Most of the workers who are impacted by such levels of precarity and poverty are racialized, Vance said, with some being newcomers to Canada, who, in her experience, can often be reluctant to access government services and/or benefits available to them because they feel they must counteract the anti-immigrant stereotype that they are "freeloaders."

Racialized communities in Toronto have already been hit hardest with COVID-19 outbreaks due to their economic positions. Between May 20 and July 16, 83 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases involved members of racialized communities, according to race-based data collected by Toronto Public Health. 

Of the eight Toronto high schools she's worked at over her ten years teaching, Vance has encountered many parents working multiple, precarious, low-wage jobs as they struggle to feed and house their families. 

Vance said she's also had high school students who have been their families' sole breadwinners, working 12 hour nights cleaning office buildings and attending school the next day, unable to take time off from either. 

"Before the pandemic, we already had a growing number of students in our schools who were homeless. I can't tell you how many parents I've spoken to in the past who are in an ongoing struggle just to keep their families housed," she said. 

Permanent paid sick days are a matter of racial, gender and disability justice, said Jimenez. 

"As education workers, this is a basic economic and racial justice issue for the families and communities we serve, and it's a massive safety concern with respect to COVID-19. We're only as strong as our weakest link here," said Vance.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Anh Nguyen/Unsplash

Editor's note, August 25, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Laura Walton's position. She is not the president of CUPE Ontario. She is the president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which is a division of CUPE Ontario.​

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