Demands for paid sick days in Ontario grow
As the pandemic surges in the province the desperate need for paid sick days in Ontario is increasingly obvious. The Ford government continues to ignore growing calls for them.
Advocates of paid sick leave rally at Queen's Park, January 13 -- photo via video screenshot
On Tuesday, January 12 Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government announced a number of measures, including a stay-at-home order, meant to combat dangerously surging numbers of new Covid-19 cases in the province.
Not among these measures, however, was one that many healthcare professionals have been calling for for months: paid sick days for workers.
It should be perfectly obvious that keeping workers at home when they feel sick during a pandemic is critical in preventing its spread. Workers who cannot afford to stay at home when feeling ill, or who may face disciplinary measures for doing so, will continue working in spite of illness and symptoms that may indicate they have the virus.
As Paul Meinema, National President of the United Food and Commercial Workers union puts it: “Paid sick days ensure workers are not choosing between their health and putting food on the table. It is an important tool in stopping the spread of Covid-19 by removing uncertainty and encouraging those to stay home if they feel ill.”
So far, however, the Ford government is not showing any indication of taking this clearly needed step. They made their pro-business, anti-worker agenda perfectly clear right after taking office when two of the first moves they made were to cancel the minimum wage increase to $15 an hour and to eliminate the measly two days of paid sick leave that the previous Liberal government had brought in.
When questioned about the lack of sick leave, Ford tries to deflect to the existence of the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). As many have pointed out though, the CRSB is a woefully inadequate support that does little to help workers afford to stay home when sick.
As Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario puts it "“We could be seeing up to 40,000 cases a day in the province by mid-February and Doug Ford just failed to announce what we truly need today. Every expert has made it clear that we need paid sick leave, especially during an infection disease emergency. It’s unconscionable that this government is yet again failing to take the advice and to keep us safe.” Hahn adds “By focusing on a stay-at-home order, reduced hours for stores, and requiring non-essential workers to work from home, this government is scapegoating everyday people and evading responsibility".
In a January 12 press release CUPE Ontario called on the provincial government to immediately "spend the at least $12-billion the Ford Conservatives have sitting in reserves to:
Develop a real, comprehensive, and detailed vaccine rollout plan that’s communicated clearly to the public;
Ensure that the rollout is backed up with resources for local public health units and community organizations;
Ensure robust contact tracing and accelerated rapid testing;
Finally take action with supports needed to address the growing crisis in long-term care;
Actually listen to education workers and put in the supports needed, like smaller class sizes, to ensure a safe return to school as soon as possible;
Legislate paid sick time for all workers;
And develop a comprehensive action plan to address the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on racialized communities."
Among those who do not have any paid sick leave are many healthcare workers. According to CUPE:
In the health sector, to protect patients, residents and other front-line staff, quarantine and isolation are required for workers exposed to the COVID-19 virus. But more than half of the health care workforce are part-time and casual employees who do not have paid sick leave. When they are asked to isolate or quarantine, they lose several weeks income. Half of the WSIB claims for hospital staff who have contracted COVID-19 at work have been contested.
Referring to "St. Joseph’s Hamilton CEO, Tom Stewart who was forced to leave his position after vacationing in the Caribbean during the December holidays", Michael Hurley the President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) stated:
Most hospital workers are keenly aware that the hospital CEO who opted to ignore provincial travel guidelines and vacation was rewarded with two years pay – well over $1 million. Most health care staff have been denied any time off throughout the pandemic – their vacations have been cancelled. They go to work at great risk. They must have the confidence that if they are exposed to or contract COVID-19 that they will not lose weeks of pay. This is true of all of the province’s essential workers.
A private member's bill tabled by Peggy Sattler, NDP MPP for London West, the Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, hopes to force the government's hand. The bill "would guarantee 10 personal emergency leave days per year for every worker, seven of which are paid. It would also mandate an additional 14 days of paid leave during any infectious disease emergency".
A press release about the bill noted that an "estimated 60 per cent of Ontarians do not have permanent paid sick days, and that number is much higher among low-income workers, in sectors like food service, hospitality and retail, and among racialized or immigrant people."
The bill has the support of both Ontario Federation of Labour and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce but not, so far, that of the provincial government itself. Given that the Conservatives have a majority in the legislature, continued pressure from labour, worker's groups and movements and the public will be required to force their hand.