Let workers stay home with pay when they’re sick

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Gavin McGarrigle, Western Regional Director

The refrain “if you’re sick, stay home” is not just smart workplace policy, it’s also smart public health policy.

Of course, COVID-19 has elevated the importance of this approach to new levels. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces is a matter of life and death.

This month the premier acknowledged the link between provincial workplace policies and public health by legislating paid time off for workers to get the vaccine.

It’s time to take the next step and legislate employer-paid sick leave for all Saskatchewan’s workers.

If you already have paid sick leave—you’re in the minority. Most workers in Saskatchewan do not have paid sick day benefits. Among low-paid workers, that figure rises even higher. It should also be no surprise that more women than men don’t have paid sick leave.

The fact is COVID-19 lockdowns and stay-at-home orders do not work without paid sick leave.

While the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit is, at least in theory, helping workers with COVID symptoms stay home, it is temporary, insufficient, and inconvenient.

To qualify, a worker must miss a full week of work. It only provides a mere $450 per week to people who have had to miss work due to COVID-19. It does not provide the same security that paid sick leave would, as processing delays of up to four weeks is too late for many workers living paycheque to paycheque.

Workers who can’t afford to take a massive pay cut are still forced to make a choice between a paycheque or going to work and infecting others.

When someone decides to stay home because they have a runny nose or a new cough, it’s not to benefit their health, it’s for the rest of us. Why should they have to pay?

There is a better way. Saskatchewan can join Quebec and Prince Edward Island in offering employer-paid sick leave.

Right now Saskatchewan employment standards only provide for twelve sick days—all unpaid. This regulation was wholly inadequate before the pandemic. We now know today that it is fatal.

It’s time to protect workers by increasing the legal minimum to seven employer-paid sick days, and fourteen paid sick days in the case of a public health emergency such as COVID-19.

All classes of workers in all sectors should be eligible and no sick notes should be required—over-worked health practitioners have more urgent work to do.

Saskatchewan must also scrap the current probation period. The nonsensical policy insists sick days are only available to workers after they’ve been on the job for 13 weeks.

A handful of greedy employers will no doubt resist the idea of paid sick leave in Saskatchewan, but a simple lesson in productivity should help these bosses appreciate that limiting the spread of infectious diseases, COVID-19 or otherwise, in the workplace is good for business.

When it comes to their health, and the health of our coworkers, the people cannot rely on the whims and charity of employers. The stakes are simply too high to sit back and hope thousands of businesses will voluntarily pay to exceed the province’s current twelve-day minimum.

What business would want to go first, when their competitors are refusing to offer the same benefit? According to a recent report, just 15% of local companies in Canada upgraded their sick leave policies during the pandemic. 

Instead, the province-wide standard must be raised so no employer can argue a modest paid sick leave policy is a “competitive disadvantage.”

By raising the floor and mandating paid sick leave, we can help stop this pandemic, and keep everyone safer in the workplace for the long run.