Unpaid sick days are what ails Doug Ford’s recovery plan

Posted on June 9, 2020 in Policy Context

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TheStar.com – Politics/Opinion

When Doug Ford promised on Monday to put the province back to work, he forgot our workers.

It’s not just our economy that’s ailing. Many of our co-workers are sick with COVID-19 — or will be soon.

More than 30,000 Ontarians have tested positive to date. But the true figure may be closer to 300,000 cases of the coronavirus so far, with many more still to come, according to a new University of Toronto study.

Those numbers don’t mean we must stay hunkered down. After all, a prolonged lockdown imposes enormous costs in reduced incomes, lowering the determinants of health for the working poor above all.

The Progressive Conservative government’s phased reopening of workplaces is inevitable and understandable. But the premier is putting his carefully laid plans at risk by ignoring the sleeper issue of worker sickness.

In a pandemic, economic recovery depends on employee convalescence. Without paid sick days, many workers who should stay home simply won’t — trudging, grudgingly, to the workplace for fear of losing their wages or jobs.

We will all pay the price — personally, medically, economically — for their misfortune and Ford’s folly.

The premier repeatedly praises our “front-line heroes,” vowing again Monday to put public safety first. But all these months later, he still won’t protect all of Ontario’s people by encouraging working people to stay home when unwell — and backing it up with minimal sick pay.

Ontario previously guaranteed annual sick leave without requiring a doctor’s note. Upon taking power, Ford pointedly rescinded the law.

The onset of COVID-19, and an outcry from physicians, forced him to back down on doctor’s notes. But Ford still refused to restore the previous guarantee of two days’ sick pay — the bare minimum in the best of times, and a modest safety premium in the worst of times.

Now, as Ottawa tries to coax the provinces into enacting paid sick leave in return for federal funding, Ontario’s premier insists it’s still not a priority in mid-pandemic.

“Well, I don’t support it,” he told reporters. “If they don’t feel safe, they don’t have to go on to work.”

Ford prides himself on his prudence. But this is penny-wise and pound-foolish — reckless, in fact.

The argument to restore minimal sick pay isn’t ideological. It’s practical, economical and medical.

Ford backed down from those doctor’s notes because he had to admit that sick workers would infect practitioners and patients in waiting rooms. But by the same logic, sick workers are bound to infect their fellow employees (and employers) if they leave home.

Last February, as COVID-19 loomed, an open letter from more than 175 doctors, nurses and public health workers urged the PC government to restore paid sick days, given the overwhelming evidence of its impact: “The medical literature consistently states that employees with no sick leave are more likely to go to work and expose others to infection.”

It makes no sense to expect the working poor to become poorer if they come down with COVID-19. Nor is it fair to demand they sacrifice their individual wages, in poor health, so as to benefit society’s collective health.

It is human nature to respond to incentives, just as it is inevitable that people will react to perverse disincentives. Economists call it the “nudge” theory.

If supermarkets charge five cents per plastic bag, most people will use far fewer. Equally, if you dock a worker a day’s wage, he’ll think twice before booking off.

You can do the math. By penalizing sick workers, we will only make more people sick.

The premier is right to preach that workers should stay home when unwell. But he should put his money where his morality is, rather than demand that those who can least afford it bear the burden — so that society will benefit and employers won’t be out of pocket.

The two paid sick days cancelled by Ford could make a bigger difference than ever, because the turnaround time for COVID-19 testing is faster than ever. It gives people that much more time to await the results and reconsider before infecting others.

The take-up for sick pay may not even be that high. With so many white-collar employees working remotely as the pandemic continues, many of the sick will simply remain at home anyway — and may still be able to work if asymptomatic.

The benefits for protecting front-line workers, factory employees, delivery crews and retail staff — many of whom face the public every day — are not only personal but societal. And incalculable.

Sick pay is about individual self-interest and the public interest. The premier’s blind spot on protecting sick workers belies his vision for safe workplaces.


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