Focus on real problem with federal sick-leave benefit: not enough workers are using it

Posted on January 5, 2021 in Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial

Everyone who stayed home and curtailed holiday plans because of COVID has the right to be supremely annoyed, angry even, with their fellow Canadians who chose to ignore public health advice and travelled to fun and festive destinations.

Especially when some of those people were the very politicians who told everyone else to stay home for the good of our communities — and then jumped on a plane themselves.

But that understandable sentiment is at risk of morphing into an unwarranted attack on the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, egged on by opposition politicians looking to score political points.

The federal benefit provides $500 a week for a maximum of two weeks for workers who don’t have employer-paid sick days and need to stay home because they have contracted COVID-19 or need to isolate because of it.

The possibility that some people who travelled abroad over the holidays will be eligible for that benefit during their 14-day required quarantine is creating a political dust-up.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has called it “unacceptable.” Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet says it’s “absurd.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who pushed the Liberal government to create the benefit in the first place, is now looking to have it both ways. Canadians, he says, are “rightly upset” and the government must come up with a solution but can’t risk making things worse from a public health perspective.

The sick-leave benefit was quite obviously not intended to be used as a post-holiday quarantine cheque. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough says the government is looking into it and we certainly hope she doesn’t find that many people have abused the program.

But let’s not lose sight of the reason why this program exists — to reduce the spread of COVID.

The problem with the federal sick-leave benefit is not that it could be potentially abused by a few holiday travellers. It’s that not enough low-income workers who really need paid sick days are using it.

In Canada, less than half of all workers have access to paid sick leave through their employers. The vast majority of them tend to be low-paid front-line workers who can’t do their jobs from home and can’t afford to miss even a single paycheque.

The last thing any of us should want is for them to go to work sick, putting their coworkers and the broader community at risk.

The federal government estimated that nearly 5 million workers might need the sick-leave benefit before it ends this spring. But it’s nowhere near on track to reaching that many workers. So far just over 268,000 have received benefits. That’s an appallingly low take-up.

That’s what’s truly unacceptable, especially when we know the need is there.

COVID cases are spiralling upwards all over the country — Ontario alone reported 3,270 new cases on Monday. Workplace outbreaks — including in long-term-care homes, where the consequences are most deadly — are spiking.

On Monday, Toronto Mayor John Tory called on the province and Ottawa to do more to tackle the serious problem of workers so “afraid of losing their pay cheque” they avoid getting tested and go to work even when they’re sick.

The federal government brought in the sick-leave benefit because provinces, including Ontario, have allowed labour laws to weaken to the point that many low-paid workers have few benefits or workplace protections — a truly terrible combination in a pandemic.

But more clearly still needs to be done to make the federal benefit easier and quicker to access and assure workers that their jobs will still be there if they do the right thing and stay home when sick.

That’s where the government’s focus should be. Opposition leaders should put forward their own ideas on that, too, instead of trying to drum up anger over the possibility that a few vacationers may benefit unfairly.

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