Levreault and Bierstone: Parents need 10 paid sick days to care for their children

How do we instruct parents to keep their child home, while knowing they would have to miss work and risk not being able to pay rent? Premier Doug Ford needs to get behind legislation that will fix this.

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read November 17, 2021

Students get ready to start the school day in this winter 2021 photos. How many school closures could have been prevented if parents did not have to choose between losing their wages and sending their child with yet another runny nose to school? Jean Levac / Postmedia

Long before the pandemic, we were advocating for a critical issue affecting the health of children: the lack of paid sick leave for workers. As pediatricians, we witness too often that our patients with special needs are unable to attend therapy appointments because their parents cannot afford to take time off work. This perpetuates a cycle of marginalization in which children with developmental disabilities, whose parents work precarious jobs, are least likely to receive the services they need to thrive and succeed.

Many of these families are racialized or are newcomers to Canada. But the Ontario government has a unique opportunity to address this gap by passing Bill 8, the

Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, 2021 which would legislate 10 permanent employer-provided paid sick days and 14 days during pandemics.

The health ramifications of the lack of paid sick leave have only been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic as doctors and public health experts have had to contend with difficult situations. A father recently told us, for instance, that he could not keep his daughter home from day care while her COVID-19 swab was pending because the family are newcomers to Canada and he had no one who could stay with her. He quietly asked if we would report him to public health authorities. How do we instruct parents to keep their child home, while knowing they would have to miss work and risk not being able to pay rent?

This is even more challenging when kids have to self-isolate due to a positive contact at school. In fact, one of us has a child who has had to self-isolate three times in four weeks. Is it viable for any parent to keep their child home for 10 days, especially without pay for the work that parent misses?

Fifty-eight per cent of workers in Canada (and 70 per cent of workers making less than $25,000 a year) do not have paid sick days. Now that we have entered viral season with many kids catching colds and having to self-isolate every few weeks, this is a situation that has become increasingly untenable for families living paycheque to paycheque.

Currently in Ontario, 31 per cent of active COVID cases are associated with schools. Children are among those who have suffered the most throughout this pandemic, and pediatricians are constantly seeing how the frequent school closures have exacerbated their mental health and educational outcomes. A recent study from SickKids found that since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a 66-per-cent increase in emergency department visits and a 37-per-cent increase in hospitalizations for children and youth with eating disorders.

As doctors, we strive to practise evidence-based medicine — basing the treatments or medications we prescribe on the best available scientific data. Paid sick leave is an effective intervention for better children’s health. Access to paid sick days is associated with 400 fewer COVID-19 cases per state per day in the U.S. and with higher vaccination rates, which help contain the spread of contagious diseases. Studies have also shown that parents with paid sick days are 20-per-cent less likely to send sick children to school.

How many school closures could have been prevented if parents did not have to choose between losing their wages and sending their child with yet another runny nose to school?

There is growing momentum across Canada for paid sick leave, as governments realize the significance of paid sick leave as sound public health policy. The federal government promised to legislate 10 permanent paid sick days for federally regulated workers within 100 days of taking office, and the B.C. government is legislating employer-paid sick days starting January 2022. The need for employer-provided paid sick leave in Ontario has never been more urgent, especially as the three temporary paid sick days announced earlier this year are set to end on Dec. 31.

Premier Doug Ford recently announced a long overdue minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. But if the premier is truly committed to supporting the health of workers and their children, there is no better way than by lending unanimous support to 10 paid sick days in Bill 8.

Dr. Eleni Levreault is a pediatric resident in Ottawa; Dr. Daniel Bierstone is a Toronto pediatrician.