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Paid sick leave is essential – not a question of political calculus

Published on 24/02/2021

By now, everyone should understand that we need paid sick days to help us get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. So what’s the hold-up?

In the middle of a pandemic, the need to mandate paid sick leave is beyond obvious. By continuing to deny employees this basic protection, the government is choosing to put people in harm’s way. This denial harms employees themselves, and everyone around them – their colleagues and customers, the people who ride the bus alongside them, and the person selling their morning coffee. The importance of paid sick leave is so glaring that we should ask ourselves why it is not already part of Ontario’s employment standards.

The Ontario government has a duty to protect our human right to safe and healthy working conditions. This means that they must prevent others from violating this right. Provincial governments must set and enforce employment standards that employers must abide by – including providing paid sick leave for all of their employees. In fact, Ontario enacted mandatory paid sick days shortly before the current government took office and repealed them.

Employers, too, have a responsibility: to fulfill their employees’ right to safe work. They shouldn’t think twice about providing paid sick leave. Many employers, large and small, already do so. They have made respect for their employees’ right to a healthy work environment part of their business culture, and in return have found increased productivity and employee loyalty. Some of these employers have even called for the government to make paid sick leave mandatory so that their businesses can compete fairly with those that do not currently live up to their responsibilities.

So again, what’s the hold-up? Why is the current provincial government choosing not to protect this essential human right?

In the face of the largest and most disruptive pandemic in a century, the refusal to act on paid sick leave is a mark of a government valuing “the economy” over people and their human rights. It is a mark of a government trying not to offend their major stakeholders and donors rather than one striving to lead. It is a mark of a government putting political considerations ahead of its duty to serve the public.

Some try to argue that the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) is standing in for employer-paid sick leave during this crisis. However, the CRSB alone is inadequate. The full benefit works out to less than minimum wage. The province has the jurisdiction to compel employers to act. It also has the fiscal capacity to support those employers that are experiencing pandemic hardship and truly cannot afford to pay for sick leave during this period. In fact, the province has all the fiscal tools it needs to raise funds, including a full range of powers to increase taxes. It simply lacks the will to use them.

At least, others could argue, the federal government is doing something, imperfect though it might be. Any change or new program implemented during an emergency is bound to have flaws. Predictably, critics will seize on anything that doesn’t go exactly right, as we saw with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). But governments must work to improve our circumstances, especially when choosing not to will surely make the problem worse. In a crisis, leadership means showing courage. This means not passing the buck to other orders of government; it means taking action even if that action does not appeal to your voting base, because that action is in the service of your public duty. Refusing to act is a dereliction of duty.

Paid sick leave is more than a public health tool for infection control. It is an essential element of the human right to safe and healthy working conditions.

In the long term, paid sick leave should be a permanent part of our employment standards. Just as paid vacation days are a standard expense for employers, paid sick leave must be as well. Moreover, implementing a minimum standard for paid sick leave should be part of a larger reconsideration of how our employment standards can better protect our right to safe and healthy working conditions.

When this crisis passes, we must build a stronger, more robust system of human rights protections for workers. But we will not get past this crisis without urgent action. This is not the time to hoard money – or popularity points – for a rainy day. This is the rainy day. It’s a storm in fact, and it will become a deluge unless we act now. We have not faced a pandemic of this scale or scope in our lifetime; failing to meet this challenge vigorously, bravely, and intelligently is to fail a critical test of historical significance.

The Ontario government has a duty to protect all workers in this province. All employers have a responsibility to their employees. All workers need paid sick leave, now.

Topic(s)

Employment and labour, Government spending and tax

Summary

The Ontario government has a duty to protect all workers in this province. All employers have a responsibility to their employees. All workers need paid sick leave, now.