Where's B.C.'s sick leave plan? Premier promises more details 'in the days ahead'
VANCOUVER -- More than a year after the B.C. government began trumpeting the importance of paid sick leave to keep people from bringing COVID-19 into the workplace, officials have yet to implement a provincial policy supporting workers.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Premier John Horgan said his administration is still planning to introduce a program to address gaps in the federal government's Canada Sickness Recovery Benefit, and that more details would be shared "in the days ahead."
"Work was done through the summer to bring forward a provincial plan and we're taking those off the shelf and looking at how we can implement that in a seamless way, without putting more burden on business at a time when business can least afford it," Horgan said.
Prior to last week, the province had been counting on Ottawa to announce a "genuine national program" in the federal budget, the premier said. When that didn't happen, B.C. officials began mobilizing to address the CSRB shortcomings on their own.
"Obviously we weren’t able to mend our budget documents, which came the next day," Horgan added.
That didn't stop the opposition BC Liberals from taking aim at the premier for what the party called another broken promise.
"Last year, the premier said, 'We're prepared to go it alone if need be…. We do have alternative plans in place.' One year later, nobody has seen any plan from the premier to fund sick pay," Todd Stone, critic for jobs, economic recovery and innovation said during Question Period Tuesday.
Horgan didn't give any hints about what the province's plans might entail. Earlier on Tuesday, the Ontario government offered to provide funding to double the federal CSRB benefit so that employees in that province would be eligible for up to $1,000 per week instead of $500.
Horgan said he hasn't spoken with Premier Doug Ford about the proposal, and that he doesn't think the plan would work.
Critics argue the federal program falls short. The Canada Sickness Recovery Benefit doesn't cover testing and only kicks in when an employee works less than 50 per cent of their schedule. Because workers have to apply for the benefit, payment is also delayed.
Laird Cronk, the president of the BC Federation of Labour, pointed out that could force people to choose between paying rent, buying groceries or giving up other necessities to make up the shortfall.
"I want that worker who wakes up in the morning and they have a scratchy throat to not say I'm so worried about the bills," he told CTV News in an interview. "We have to take that economic piece off the table."
If not, Cronk said many workers may head to their jobs passing their symptoms off as seasonal allergies.
"It can't come soon enough, we've been talking about this for 13 months," Cronk said, adding that he's "really encouraged that the province is now focused on this."
Asked about what has taken so long – particularly after the B.C. government was able to rush a grant program together for gyms and restaurants struggling under the latest COVID-19 restrictions – Horgan suggested it's because the province is venturing into uncharted territory.
"There's no mechanism to do this, this is not something that's regularly done," the premier said. "Resources are not the issue, it's the delivery of the program."
Early on in the pandemic, there were widespread outbreaks in food processing facilities that were blamed on workers facing financial pressure to come in sick because they wouldn't be paid to stay home.
Since then, there have been countless instances of COVID-19 transmission in workplaces. More than 50 businesses in the Lower Mainland have been forced to temporarily close since the beginning of April because of on-site transmission that infected three or more people – though the government has not provided any details about how many of those incidents may have started because someone went to work while symptomatic.
"We've seen outbreaks in industries because people have not been able to make that hard choice, they've had to go to work to meet the needs of their families. So clearly this was a need throughout the pandemic," Horgan said. "People shouldn't have to make that choice. I believe it's a responsibility of all us to fill that gap and we're going to find a way to do that."