A B.C. government announcement mandating annual paid sick days shortchanges workers, say labour leaders and an economist. Meanwhile, small business advocates are concerned how the legislation will cost owners still facing challengine times.
On Wednesday, the province announced that workers would be entitled to five paid sick days every year beginning in January.
“Many of the people who lack paid sick leave are the same workers we depended on most during the pandemic,” Labour Minister Henry Bains said. “Lower-wage workers who help us get our groceries, prepare our food at restaurants and make sure we have the services we need deserve a basic protection like paid sick leave.”
Alex Hemingway, a senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said sick days are important for public health and the economy, and it is “concerning” it wasn’t a minimum of 10 days.
“People need that security of knowing they have enough days at their disposal, so when you get that flu in February, you don’t think, ‘Ah, maybe I better save it for something even worse later in the year,’” said Hemingway. “That aligns with what we see around the world in other jurisdictions; 10 days is actually at the low end of what we see in most other countries.”
Hemingway said the federal government has committed to 10 days for federal workers, something health workers and economists are backing. There is much research literature on “presenteeism” or going to work sick because workers have no choice, he said.
“The costs of that presenteeism are much higher than the cost of actually providing paid sick days for people … some of the evidence that I’ve read and cited in my own work in the U.S. shows that in cities that brought in paid sick days saw a 40 per cent reduction in influenza rates during flu waves,” said Hemingway. “Paid sick days for food service workers were associated with 22 per cent decline in food-borne illness rates.
“Workers without paid sick days were three times more likely to delay or forego medical care and so having paid sick days seems to encourage people to use preventative care, including getting vaccines actually outside of the COVID context, but just in general.”
In a news release, Laird Cronk, BC Federation of Labour president, welcomed the provincial announcement, but also found it lacking, as it was only half of the “10-day standard that science supports and that is the overwhelming preference of British Columbians,” vowing to continue to push for greater leave minimums.
Concern for small businesses following a challenging two years
While the announcement by the government didn’t touch on specific details, such as whether this new legislation will include part-time employees, small business advocates are concerned at how this will land on local employers.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called the five days as “tone-deaf to the realities small businesses are facing,” in a news release. Recent survey feedback showed that businesses are in no position to offer the new program on 38 days’ notice.
BC Chamber of Commerce president Fiona Famulak said that businesses know it is important to make sure employees feel safe and healthy, calling the announcement a “gut punch in the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of B.C. businesses” and yet another cost born solely on employers.
“As with any cost increase, this will create challenges for some small businesses at a particularly difficult time when they are still trying to recover from the pandemic and can least afford the additional burden,” Famulak said.
“Let’s be clear. While many businesses have been resilient through this pandemic, it doesn’t mean they are thriving. They are emotionally and financially exhausted.”
On Wednesday, the province also announced that the temporary paid sick days program that was launched at the height of the pandemic will be coming to a close on Dec. 31. Through this program, businesses were able to access up to $200 per day through the province if they didn’t have an existing sick leave program.
“The added cost of the permanent paid sick leave program is on top of a number of cost increases that businesses have needed to shoulder in the last few years, that include the introduction of the employer health tax, rising property taxes, and costs associated with implementing safety measures for the pandemic,” Famulak said.
Businesses will also soon be facing an increase to the Canadian Pension Plan premiums, which are set to rise Jan. 1.