It’s something many people in the Cowichan Valley, and indeed in Canada as a whole, likely believed already existed: universal paid sick leave. Not so.
In Canada there is a patchwork system, with different provinces mandating different things — but what is well nigh universal is that the sick days that employers must offer are likely to be unpaid.
Nationally, under the Canada Labour Code, workers cannot be dismissed or disciplined for taking a certain amount of unpaid sick leave as long as they have completed three consecutive months of employment with the same employer. And therein lies the rub. It is all too common these days for businesses to hire folks on as independent contractors who are technically self-employed, and therefore not entitled to the Code’s protections in this case. That’s not to mention the part-time and gig workers.
Then of course there’s the fact that there are a lot of people who simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off. These are the precarious workers who make just enough to put food on the table and a roof over their heads at the best of times. Even many of us who do not consider our work precarious would find it difficult to miss even one paycheque.
The chickens are coming home to roost, so to speak, on this issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the fact that with this virus people may feel very mild symptoms, or not feel any at all and still be infectious, there are those who have been forced by their economic realities to roll the dice and bet on whether the illness they’re experiencing is COVID-19 or something more normal and benign. Staying home is our responsibility, yes, but we cannot ignore that it is one borne of privilege that many of our neighbours do not share.
The federal NDP made a motion in the House of Commons last week proposing access for all Canadians to two weeks of sick leave benefits. Without these benefits, argued leader Jagmeet Singh, people could well bring COVID-19 with them as people begin to head back to work.
We think this is certainly key in the short term as we try to get back to something approaching normal. We don’t want to find ourselves right back where we started from, which is a very real danger if we see outbreak clusters spring up because people don’t, pockets empty, have the option of staying at home if they are sick.
Paid sick leave is something we should work towards for the long term as well. It’s the healthiest choice for our society.