By Sue Tiffin
Acknowledging the difficulty in staying at home and self-isolating for people who do not have paid sick leave benefits, the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit’s board of health unanimously supported a recommendation from Dr. Ian Gemmill, acting medical officer of health, to advocate for such benefits as part of a public health response to prevent further transmission of COVID-19.
Dr. Gemmill broached the recommendation at a board of health meeting on Feb. 18, noting that the necessity of paid sick days as an effective public health response to prevent the transmission of communicable disease is especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that low-income households are less likely to have access to paid sick days, and are less likely to be able to abide by public health recommendations such as not going to work if ill.
“Remaining at home during this pandemic has clearly demonstrated its effectiveness at reducing the spread of COVID-19,” noted Gemmill’s recommendation. “It was estimated that globally, a one per cent increase in the number of people staying at home resulted in 70 fewer cases and 7 fewer deaths weekly.”
Statistics Canada reports that 58 per cent of Canadians do not have paid sick leave, and low-wage workers are less likely to have sick leave benefits.
The recommendation reads: “[t]hat the Board of Health write to the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Ontario to request that the federal and provincial governments collaborate to implement and to fund the necessary policies and programs to ensure that paid sick day benefits for low-wage workers who face loss of income and financial hardship while ill, being tested, self-isolating and following necessary COVID-19 control measures.”
“We really want to control this virus by keeping people who we know are ill, and who we know may be in the position of transmitting this in the work setting or the service setting, from doing so,” Gemmill told board members. “The issue that has been recognized across the country, and across the province as well, is that there are a number of people in the service sector who are either working part-time, perhaps do not have the same kind of job security that people in other work situations have, and therefore, unfortunately, there is a disincentive for such people to follow the guidelines of staying home when you’re sick, because of the fact either that wages might be lost, or that a job might be lost by not showing up.”
While there have been federal responses put in place, Gemmill said, he noted they can be “cumbersome” for the employee, with a delay in when they might receive funds they urgently need.
“These temporary measures are more difficult to claim than mandated, immediately accessible paid sick days,” said Gemmill’s report. “Furthermore, application to these benefits is subject to delays, stringent eligibility and the amount paid after tax is less than a full-time minimum wage job in most provinces. The result is that workers may report to work, regardless of being ill.”
Besides Bill 239, Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, 2020, giving employees the right to seven days of paid and three days of unpaid emergency leave every year and a provincial support program to help business owners cover those costs, which was tabled by NDP MPP Peggy Sattler last December and was carried on the first reading, other cases for paid sick leave provisions have been made by the World Health Organization in a 2010 report, by the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada in a 2020 report, and by endorsement by Toronto City Council and the Toronto Board of Health, and a call for action by the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area Mayors and Chairs.
Canada does not currently have a federal legislation that offers paid sick leave to all Canadians, said Gemmill’s report, and of ten provinces, only two have legislated minimal paid sick leave. The Progressive Conservative government, which repealed access to two paid sick days in 2018, has opposed growing pressure from politicians and medical experts to legislate paid sick days, noting that the federal sickness benefits should be enough, though temporary.
“There is interest at the federal level to work with provinces to negotiate a new paid sick day system,” said Gemmill. “In the wake of this pandemic and the urgency to mitigate further transmission of COVID-19 in the community, now is an opportune time for the Government of Ontario to take lead, in collaboration with the federal government, to implement and fund necessary policies and programs to provide sufficient paid sick day benefits that are accessible and timely when outbreaks occur. It should remove barriers for low-wage workers to get tested, self-isolate and follow crucial coronavirus control measures.”
Board members questioned if the letter should mention their recent support of universal basic income, but Gemmill said that is a separate issue.
“Out there, in some people’s minds, there is a connection between the two,” he said. “I know there is a movement as well to look toward basic annual income … I personally think that our board should be addressing the public health side of this, which is why we presented it as a measure to try to control – be one more thing in place to help control – the spread of coronavirus.”
“I think that’s a separate issue that needs to be dealt with in a separate way at a separate time,” he said. “This is, I think, a more urgent measure to have in place so that we can use it as well to address the issue of transmission of coronavirus.”
Gemmill said that the health unit would be asking the federal and provincial governments to collaborate, to make a paid sick leave benefit work well, and said they could add wording to support that job security after sick leave was guaranteed, and stating support of the private members bill before the legislature.
A copy of the letter will also be sent to Christine Elliott, Ontario’s Minister of Health, Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Ontario boards of health, as well as area MPs and MPPs.