VANCOUVER -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his minority government will work with provinces to push forward on a paid sick leave program amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, yet questions remain about what the program could look like and how quickly it could be up and running.

During Monday's announcement, Trudeau singled out B.C. Premier John Horgan for pushing for a program that would allow those sick with the novel coronavirus to stay home without penalty.

Horgan responded in statement, saying his province is "pleased that the federal government is responding to our call for a fair and equitable paid sick leave program that protects people and businesses.”

Details of the plan are unclear, but Trudeau said workers across the country could soon get 10 days of paid sick leave.

“Nobody should have to choose between taking a day off work due to illness and paying the bills,” he added.

Experts say program long overdue

Armine Yalnizyan, economist and Fellow on the Future of Workers with the Atkinson Foundation, has a blunt assessment of the need for a paid sick leave program.

“I think it’s great news and only about 40 years overdue,” she told CTV News.

Yalnizyan stated lower paid employees will benefit most. Those with precarious work are overrepresented by women, people of colour and new immigrants. Not having sick employees show up for their shifts also makes sound economic sense, she added.

“It takes something like a pandemic for us to (become) aware of how dangerous that is - and how much work time is lost because we can’t protect our coworkers,” she added.

Yalnizyan said if sick workers infect others, that lowers overall productivity at a business.

Last month, following an outbreak at a major poultry processing plant in East Vancouver, Horgan revealed some employees had gone to work despite feeling sick because they were worried about running out of money.

Senior economist Iglika Ivanova with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said having employees able to access paid time off when they're sick would also help in keeping the COVID-19 curve flat.

“During a pandemic, it is just irresponsible not to have paid sick leave,” she said.

She also noted such a program would help low and income earners. Yet in a province as expensive as B.C. to live in, she said it would likely also help middle income earners who may not have access to paid sick leave.

Provincial jurisdiction vs. federal plan

She said if all provinces were on board, they could make the change to their Employment Standards Acts and then potentially leave it up to the federal government to administer.

The BC Federation of Labour has pushed for several years for a paid sick leave program, but picked up the pressure in March during the pandemic.

“Even today is too late,” said president Laird Cronk about the need for such a program.

Sick pay rules vary by province, as they fall under provincial jurisdiction. If the federal government were to foot the bill, through a system similar to Employment Insurance, we could see the program standardized across the country. B.C. currently has job protections, but no paid leave.

Details like who would qualify for the program, how much the benefit could be and who picks up the tab now need to be worked out between Ottawa and the provinces. The prime minister said his government will be continuing discussions "without delay" to ensure Canadians can access 10 paid sick leave annually, and that they will "consider other mechanisms for the longer term to support workers with sick leave."

“I think we need to think about how to make this permanent beyond the pandemic and maybe it’s less than ten days for normal times,” added Ivanova.

Business groups in B.C. like the Surrey Board of Trade, the Independent Businesses and Contractors Association and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the prime minister asking for a federally-funded program. They argue companies who are already suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic simply can’t take on the additional cost.

“Let's look after our teams, lets look after our employees but this shouldn’t be coming on the backs of small businesses, it should be a federal responsibility,” said Val Litwin of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.