COVID-19: Proposed law sets the stage for three days paid COVID-related sick leave in B.C. but critics say it's not enough

Province will develop a permanent sick leave program starting January 2022 but no details on how many sick days will be covered

Premier John Horgan has promised to implement a made-in-B.C. sick leave program to “fill in the gaps” left by the federal government.

Workers who are sick with COVID-19 or need to quarantine while awaiting test results will get three days paid sick leave covered by the B.C. government, Premier John Horgan and Labour Minister Harry Bains announced Tuesday.

The measures were slammed by labour advocates and opposition leaders who say three days is not enough to ensure someone who is ill doesn’t go into work.

Horgan said during a press conference Tuesday that in the absence of a comprehensive federal paid sick leave program, the province is stepping in to “fill that gap.”

“Nooneshouldhavetomakethatdifficultchoicebetweenstayinghomeand going to work sick,becausetheyhadaneconomicimperativetodoso,” Horgan said. However, Horgan said he “firmly maintains” that a national program is in the best interests of workers and businesses and he will continue to press Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to enhance federal sick leave benefits.

The proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act will require employers to pay the worker’s regular wages for up to three days. WorkSafeBC will reimburse employers up to a maximum of $200 a day for each employee.

Horgan said anyone sick for longer than three days can apply for the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit which provides $500-a-week, or $450 after taxes, for up to four weeks to anyone sick with COVID-19. However, that benefit has been criticized by labour groups and Horgan himself because it fails to replace a worker’s full wages. It also creates a financial burden since workers off sick must apply to the federal government to replace their wages, which could result in a weeks-long delay in getting the money.

Alex Hemingway, an economist and public finance analyst with the B.C. branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the province should have at least covered five paid sick days to get workers through the whole first week because the federal program doesn’t provide the sickness benefit during any week where the worker received employer-covered sick days.

“This overcautious approach, of not trying not to do too much, just doesn’t make sense in the middle of the unprecedented public health emergency,” Hemingway said. “This is not the time to skimp.”

Laird Cronk, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said the three sick days covered by the province will not be enough to protect low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women and people of colour.

“Workers struggling with a COVID-19 illness face far greater than three days of lost pay, they face potential economic devastation,” Cronk said in a statement. The federation has said 53 per cent of B.C. workers do not get any paid sick leave and for those earning less than $30,000 a year, that figure rises to 89 per cent.

Greg Kyllo, B.C. Liberal labour critic, said the sick pay benefits are way overdue and should have been introduced at the height of the pandemic before vaccines were being rolled out.

“You have to kind of ask yourself how many COVID transmissions actually happened in the workplace because of the failure and delay of a government-funded sick leave program being made available,” he said.

B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said more than a year into the pandemic, she’s surprised that the New Democrats “seem to be going for a bare minimum approach.”

While three days is better than nothing, Furstenau said “this doesn’t accomplish what I think we need to accomplish which is protecting people who have been hit the hardest by this pandemic.”

The COVID-related sick leave benefits will expire at the end of this year, after which B.C. will roll out a permanent paid sickness and personal injury leave program. However, the number of days covered by the permanent program have not yet been decided. Bains said that will be determined by cabinet after consultation with employers, workers and Indigenous partners over the coming months.

The B.C. Federation of Labour is lobbying for the province to cover up to 10 days of paid sick leave under the permanent program. Hemingway said if B.C. is only willing to cover three days paid sick leave during the pandemic, he has little confidence the permanent program will be more generous.

Bains did not have an exact figure for how much the temporary program will cost but said if 60 per cent of the workers who don’t have sick leave benefits take the full three days this year, it will cost taxpayers $300 million.

Bridgitte Anderson, president of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said in a statement the proposed legislation fills in the gaps of the federal sickness benefit “while recognizing the extraordinary challenges faced by small- and medium-sized businesses.”

The rules would apply to full-time and part-time workers. Any employer that does not currently have paid sick leave benefits will be eligible for reimbursement.

When a worker requests sick leave, their employer could ask for “reasonably sufficient proof”, although no doctor’s note is required.

The three-day program is similar to the one announced last month by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, which was slammed by critics as inadequate since it only covers COVID-related illness. Horgan objected to that comparison, saying Ontario’s program ends as of September whereas B.C.’s program will become permanent effective January 2022.

Yukon created a paid sick-leave program in March that pays a rebate to employers that covers a maximum of 10 days of wages per employee. Horgan said Yukon’s population of 40,000 people compared to B.C.’s population of five million is a factor in the length of that territory’s program.

Denise Taschereau, co-founder of Vancouver-based Fairware Promotional Products, said her company’s 16 employees get eight days paid sick leave which she said has been essential during the pandemic.

“It’s hard for me to imagine as an employer that I would create a set conditions where staff have to make those hard choices to come to work sick so they can make rent,” she said. “The productivity risk of a business owner of suddenly exposing your workforce to getting sick, it makes zero sense to me.”

The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said last week she’s supportive of a paid sick leave program to prevent people from going into work when sick and inadvertently spreading COVID-19.

Fraser Health has closed at least 60 businesses since April 17 due to COVID-19 transmission. This follows an April 9 order that allows the health authorities to direct WorkSafeBC inspectors to shut down non-essential businesses for at least 10 days if there has been COVID-19 transmission at the workplace.

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