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Group including doctors, economists calls on B.C. to legislate at least 10 employer-paid sick days

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Days before B.C. finishes gathering public feedback on a new sick leave program scheduled to kick in next year, an open letter signed by dozens of health professionals and academics is calling on the province to offer at least 10 employer-paid sick days as part of that model.

B.C. is currently gathering public input on three options: three days, five days, and 10 days.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) said the push for 10 is being supported by 84 “health experts and economists" from across the country, including former medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health Dr. John Blatherwick.

Family physician and UBC department of family practice assistant professor Dr. Rita McCracken is also one of the signatories.

“The pandemic has shown us that coming to work with those symptoms puts colleagues and in some cases members of the public at risk,” she said, and added in a normal year, adults can get between two to seven colds, and children can get between 10 to 12. “This is less than one day a month, in the grand scheme of things, and it would allow people to make a real difference in their behaviour.”

In part, the letter reads: “We are looking to the B.C. government to show national leadership because its actions will set the bar for all provinces at a time when, due to the pandemic, proper paid sick leave is more important than ever."

Dr. McCracken said prior to the pandemic, getting a cold or flu was just seen as an “inconvenience," and not necessarily a barrier to going to work, but things have changed.

“One to three sick days in a year is simply preposterous,” she said, and added there are many people in lower income jobs who don’t even receive that much. “As a society, we should be coming together to allow people to do the right thing more often.”

CCPA senior economist Alex Hemingway said ten days of sick leave should be considered “the minimum."

“That makes sense when we compare ourselves to other developed countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), that 10 days is on the lower end,” he said. “If someone gets sick in February, you don’t want them going to work, thinking they have to save up their few paid sick days for November. And that’s going to lead to the spread of illness and lost productivity in the economy.”

The CCPA said a policy of 10 days would follow countries like New Zealand and Australia, while falling short of places like Sweden (14 days) and Germany (30 days).

“It really is a no-brainer from both a public health and an economic perspective,” Hemingway said. “We can also look at studies where paid sick days were introduced recently, in jurisdictions like San Francisco and New York. Actually employers themselves reported after the introduction of these policies that there was little or no impact on their profitability.”

Surveys done by the province as part of the ongoing public engagement process found about half of employees in B.C. do not have employer-paid sick days, and those workers are more likely to be in lower paid jobs.

Of those who do have employer-paid sick days, the surveys found more than 80 per cent have at least three per year, while close to one third have over 10. About 70 per cent of workers who have access to paid sick leave indicated they typically do not use all of their allotted time every year, and employers indicated the same.

The survey also found employees without paid sick leave reported regularly going to work sick or returning to work before being fully recovered.

About six in 10 employers in B.C. do not offer paid sick leave to any of their employees, according to the survey. Many who do not cited cost as a major reason, and about 90 per cent said having to provide six to 10 days of leave would have a major impact.

Both employers and employees who took the surveys expressed concern about workers coming in sick and potentially making others unwell.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) released its own survey results showing 64 per cent of small businesses in B.C. do not support any permanent employer-paid sick leave program, and 84 per cent said cost was their biggest concern.

CFIB senior policy analyst Seth Scott said businesses are still trying to recover from the pandemic.

“B.C. small businesses right now, only about 46 per cent of them are making normal revenues,” he said. “On the flip side of that, they have huge COVID debts that they’ve incurred. We’re talking about $129,000 on average, just over that. So this is not really the right time to be putting an additional cost of 10 paid sick days onto small businesses and employers.”

In a news release, CFIB senior policy analyst Seth Scott said businesses are still trying to recover from the pandemic.

“Our local businesses are carrying a ton of COVID-related debt, have yet to see sales return to a normal level, and are still under restrictions,” he said. “They cannot afford a government imposed employer-paid permanent sick leave program, it’s too much.”

The CFIB also criticized the province’s consultation as “rushed”, and noted the surveys only asked if employers could afford a three-day, five-day, or 10-day option, without the option for zero days, and did not clearly state if paid sick leave would apply for full-time, part-time, and temporary workers.

Sixty-three per cent of small businesses surveyed said they would support a sick leave policy if the costs were fully funded by the government, according to the CFIB.

“What that should be telling people is that it’s not that small businesses are heartless and want their employees to come in sick,” he said. “They’re saying if the government wants to do this, they’re going to have to take on the cost, because they can’t afford be honest, a proper consultation would allow businesses to have a myriad of options.”

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said he thinks there is a cost of not having paid sick days.

“Workers were going to work sick, they were spreading virus to other workers, and businesses in many cases had to be shut down,” he said. “That’s a very, very costly situation to put businesses in.”

Bains said he thinks the province is going with a “proactive” approach, which will have benefits for the economy as well as public health.

“The senior’s advocate came up with a report only in the last couple of weeks, (citing) how workers went to work when they didn’t have paid sick leave, and how they passed the virus to co-workers, also to patients,” Bains said. “My expectation is that by the beginning of December, we should be in a position to make an announcement to give businesses enough time.”

As for a government-subsidized or fully funded sick leave program, Bains didn’t address the idea directly, but said the purpose of the consultation is to listen to suggestions before coming to a decision.

In May, B.C. announced a temporary COVID-19 sick pay program, offering workers three days of paid leave for circumstances related to the coronavirus.

The province is currently in the process of gathering public feedback online as part of the second phase of consultation to form the permanent sick leave policy. People can provide input until Oct. 25 at 4 p.m.

The new model is set to come into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, as required by law. Top Stories

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