Liberal sick days promise still a day late and a dollar short

    Aug 25, 2021
    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Liberals’ paid sick days pledge in Winnipeg on Aug. 20.

    OTTAWA—Is this election over yet? This is not the start the Liberals had been hoping for and it behooves one to consider the possibility of another minority Liberal government; they may end up spending millions of dollars on an election just to wind up with the same result. The election is still in its early days, but there are a couple of issues that may plague the Liberals during the campaign trail: paid sick days and Afghanistan. Let’s look at paid sick days (we discuss this in episode 101 of the Bad + Bitchy podcast).

    There is a difference between paid sick leave and paid sick days. Paid sick days refers to the number of days a worker can take off for an emergency or short-term situation and still be paid for those days off, whereas paid sick leave is a block of time a worker can take off over a longer period of time, retain their job and be paid. Paid sick days are suitable for taking the vaccine and dealing with its side effects; paid sick leave is suitable for dealing with contracting COVID. Workers need both, so the recent Liberal promise to “add another seven days to paid sick leave benefits for federally regulated workers,” as reported by CP24—who mislabelled paid sick days as paid sick leave—is still a day late and a dollar short.

    A sickness benefit, such as the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, compensates retroactively, presenting disruptions in pay and only pays a portion of a worker’s wage (paid sick days/leave compensates at full salary). This should not be a substitute for employer-paid sick days/leave. Those who are most vulnerable to COVID, essential workers, have been robbed of leave provisions during the time they—and the rest of society—need them most.

    The system we have now is a patchwork of leave from both provincial and federal programs. As the Broadbent Institute points out: “Most workers fall under provincial and territorial employment standards, which sets out mandatory minimum job-protected leaves to be provided by employers. Workers in federally regulated industries, such as airlines, banks, and telecommunications, are governed by similar legislation at the federal level. In total there are 14 jurisdictions (10 provinces, [three] territories and the federal level).” As a result, access is very unequal. For example, in most provinces one can access between three and seven sick days, whereas in Yukon and Saskatchewan, workers can access 12 days. However, not all of these days are paid—most aren’t. Currently, 11 jurisdictions don’t require any paid sick days. In addition, Employment Insurance (EI) provides 15 weeks of sick leave, but access is questionable, coverage is uneven, and there are delays in processing in normal times.

    While the federal government can mandate federally regulated workplaces, which only accounts for around 910,000 Canadian employees, this is mainly a provincial matter. However, the leadership of the federal government in terms of labour rights cannot be underestimated. In 2018, the government created three paid sick days, promising to extend them to 10 for those who had been in their job for at least six months.

    Though EI has been temporarily improved to meet the outsized needs of those who were mandated to stay home during lockdown, including waiving the waiting period (up to two weeks) and reducing the number of hours needed to qualify, the same people who were left out of the system before are still left out. In their March 2020 report, COVID-19 and the Canadian Workforce Reforming EI To Protect More Workers, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found that “COVID-19 changes to the EI system announced in March will speed up access to sickness benefits, but they won’t change who qualifies for EI in the first place.” This includes women. The Advisory Council on the Status of Women for New Brunswick prepared a backgrounder on the gender discrimination present in EI. In it, they noted that women’s benefits are lower: “Women who qualify for EI receive on average lower benefits than men, and for a shorter period, because of their lower average earnings, fewer hours of work and interrupted labour force participation.” According to a different CCPA report entitled, Women and the Employment Insurance Program, about 40 per cent of women are precariously employed in non-standard work arrangements such as “employed part-time or in temporary, casual, and contract work, they are multiple job holders, or they are self-employed without employees … As well, because they are still largely responsible for family caregiving, employed women generally work shorter hours than employed men even when both are employed full-time. In a system where eligibility for benefits is based on hours worked, these differences may mean women are less likely than men to be eligible for benefits under the program.” Statistics Canada reminds us that women are more employed in the services sector than men, therefore women are more likely to need EI in this pandemic.

    This is how policy discriminates.

    One may wonder after 18 months of this pandemic, why the prime minister didn’t make these changes beforehand to help vulnerable workers, instead of using it as a cudgel against his opponents in an election? It may follow that the cynicism creeping into the Liberals’ campaign will be their undoing.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.