For millions of Ontario workers living on a knife’s edge, paid sick days would be a huge boon. It would also benefit everyone else

Posted on November 13, 2022 in Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
Nov. 13, 2022.   By Madeleine Ritts, Contributor

Poorly paid workers without sick days are faced with a profound moral dilemma when they must knowingly expose co-workers and the public to illness.

In my work as a mental health clinician, I often find myself attending to psychological suffering that is rooted in poor working conditions, financial struggle and limited access to care. Far too many workers, including many of my colleagues in health care, experience untenable levels of material adversity and chronic stress. In turn, their chances of developing various physical and mental health issues like muscle tension, heart disease, anxiety and depression are significantly increased.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the causal links between decent working conditions, personal well-being and public health into stark relief, and the ongoing fight to legislate paid sick days illustrates this well.

Consider Sonya, who works at a food processing plant that doesn’t provide paid sick days. Although she woke up with a sore throat and extreme fatigue, she’ll either have to work or take unpaid time off. The hit to her paycheque would mean choosing between rent, buying groceries, or her heart disease medication. If she decides to stay home, she worries that she’ll appear “unreliable” and lose shifts. Weighing her options leaves her feeling powerless, anxious and exhausted.

Research has found that workers without paid sick days are much more likely to experience psychological distress that interferes with their daily lives and relationships, even after controlling for other risk factors for poor mental health. A study published last August saw a significant association between increased access to paid sick time and lower mortality rates related to overdoses, alcohol poisoning, transport accidents and suicide.

Paid sick days have largely been left to the good will of employers to provide — or the hard efforts of unions to force them to. The fact that a staggering 60 per cent of Ontario’s workers lack access to paid sick days stands as an indictment of our government’s laissez-faire approach to meeting the basic needs of workers and their dependants. Premier Doug Ford’s unrelenting hostility to legislating a permanent and adequate number of employer-paid sick days is evermore egregious, as our care systems for health and mental health sink deeper into chaos and unprecedented crisis.

Employer-paid sick days are desperately needed to improve the mental health and well-being of workers, especially low-income, racialized and non-unionized workers who are least likely to have paid sick days or workplace benefits of any kind. But their benefit to the broader public is equally clear.

While our governments have abdicated responsibility for guaranteeing basic labour rights and public health protections, individual workers are shouldered with an enormous amount of risk and responsibility to manage public health and safety. This has proven to be wildly ineffective and psychologically burdensome. Workers in environments with the highest rates of COVID transmission — who also tend to be among the most poorly paid — are faced with a profound moral dilemma when they must knowingly expose their co-workers to illness and risk the safety of the individuals they care for in hospitals, daycares and long-term care.

Legislating employers to provide an adequate number of paid sick days is necessary to protect workers from unjust termination and unsustainable financial strain. Paid sick days must be universally accessible for all workers, without sick note requirements.

A renewed opportunity to win paid sick days is on the horizon in Ontario. On Nov. 28, the provincial government will vote on the NDP’s Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, which would require employers to provide 10 employer-paid sick days and 14 additional days for personal emergencies to all workers. Should Ford’s government pass this bill into law, it would be a huge boon for millions of workers living on a knife’s edge between meeting their basic material needs and their health. As a step toward safer working conditions and improved public health, it would also be a win for us all.

Madeleine Ritts is a mental health social worker in Toronto and an organizer with the Decent Work and Health Network.

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