During the recent federal election, the Liberal Party pledged that it would introduce amendments to the Canada Labour Code to provide 10 days of paid sick leave to all federally regulated workers “so that no one has to choose between going to work sick or paying their bills.”
This can’t come soon enough. It could also serve as a launching point for lasting reforms for the 90 per cent of Canadian workers regulated by provincial and territorial employment law.
Although some workers in Canada have leave benefits through private-sector employment contracts and collective agreements, less than half report having employer-paid sick leave. When the pandemic hit, many of these workers found themselves in the unfortunate situation of having to choose between taking unpaid time off or going to work sick. As the pandemic has shown, workers who go to work sick risk spreading viruses among co-workers, resulting in longer absences, more serious health problems and lower productivity.
It wasn’t just sick leave that workers lacked. Workers also needed time off to care for their children, elders and other household members. Limited access to caregiving leave can contribute to worker burnout and result in unmet care needs, which may result in people needing more complex care, and in increased health-care spending down the road. The lack of adequate leave provisions disproportionately affects women — especially women in precarious jobs, many of whom are recent immigrants and racialized workers — as they typically are the primary caregivers in households.
Under mounting public pressure, the federal, provincial and territorial governments introduced a suite of temporary measures during the pandemic to provide workers with sickness and caregiving leaves. These provisional measures are set to expire soon. The federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, which provide income support to those unable to work either due to a COVID-related illness, child-care obligations or to care for sick family members, are set to expire at the end of October.
Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, enacted a temporary measure to provide three days of paid leave for COVID-related reasons, but only British Columbia has pledged to create a permanent short-term paid sick-leave benefit in the new year. This would make B.C. only the fourth Canadian jurisdiction to provide a general, but very limited statutory right to paid sick leaves. Policymakers will need to act quickly to address the shortfall.
In a report recently published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, we recommend that all workers in Canada receive 15 days of paid leave to cover both sickness and caregiving needs. To give workers much-needed flexibility, we propose that they be allowed to take the leave in hours, rather than as full days or weeks.
We strongly favour a model that requires employers to pay for the first weeks of sick leave, although in some jurisdictions cost-sharing with government or social insurance funds may become the political compromise necessary to achieve the primary goal of providing all workers with easy access to generous paid leaves.
These changes would bring Canada in line with its international peers. We conducted an analysis of other major industrialized countries and found that most provided paid sick leave. In fact, few countries required employers to pay less than the first two weeks of leave.
Policymakers must also find a way to extend leave benefits to the growing number of self-employed workers hired by digital platforms and app-based companies who aren’t covered by employment laws and social programs.
When the temporary measures end, the previous rules with their many gaps and shortcomings will be reinstated. But better policies are attainable. All levels of government must act quickly to ensure that all working Canadians have access to adequate sick and caregiving leaves — and not just during times of health emergencies.
Leah F. Vosko is Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Gender and Work at York University. Eric M. Tucker is a Professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.