Who is using Ontario’s temporary paid sick days — and why? New data provides clues
|Toronto Star 20 Jun 2021 at 11:55|
The number of workers claiming paid sick days under Ontario’s temporary benefit program has almost doubled over the past week, as the province expedites second doses in a bid to limit the spread of the Delta variant.
As of this week, over 10,800 Ontario workers have taken days off as part of the temporary sick-day program introduced in April. Last week, that number was just over 5,800.
But despite the sudden surge, Deena Ladd of the Toronto-based Workers Action Centre says the overall number of claims is “minuscule.”
“Fundamentally, I’m not surprised at the low numbers everywhere,” said Ladd.
“If you’ve worked at a place where paid sick days are frowned upon and you know your employer doesn’t like it, if you work through a temp agency and you’ve never been given paid sick days ... you’re putting a target on your back.”
The provincial program, implemented after long-standing who said immediate, seamless access to fully paid sick days was crucial to containing the COVID-19 virus, expires in September. It allows employers to claim up to $200 per day of leave, for up to three days.
While paid time off for vaccination is crucial, Ladd says the figures speak to the stigma and fear associated with taking time off for illness, especially for precarious workers.
“I think it’s easier to say to your boss, ‘I need to take a day off because I’ve got a vaccination.’ Because of course, employers want their workers to get vaccinated,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour said the data shows most claims are coming from hot spots like Toronto and Mississauga.
Prior to this week’s bump, the province had received claims from 1,634 workplaces on behalf of over 5,800 workers, the majority of whom worked in manufacturing. Construction saw the second highest number of workers with sick-day claims, at 922, followed by retail with 799.
The total amount claimed added up to $1.67 million.
In the GTA alone, there are more than 351,000 manufacturing workers — a sector that was untouched by pandemic lockdown regulations.
As overall COVID-19 cases tumble, workplaces remain the largest outbreak setting in the province with 64 active outbreaks as of Friday. The next highest setting is group living with 21, according to provincial data.
Employers have up to 120 days to submit sick-day claims, which means the current data may not represent a full picture, notes Dr. Gaibrie Stephen, an emergency physician in Peel and a member of the Decent Work and Health Network (DWHN).
But he also says his patients were sometimes unaware the provincial paid sick-day benefit existed — particularly a month ago when COVID numbers were dire.
“This was something that did come up, and I had to explain to patients that the law says you get paid for three days,” he said.
In response to questions about outreach conducted about the provincial paid sick days, a ministry spokesperson said the information was published online and is regularly promoted through social media channels. The ministry also sent an “e-blast to notify stakeholders.”
Across Canada, around half of all workers have access to paid sick leave according to a Statistics Canada study released earlier this year. But those figures vary drastically based on employment status. While 66 per cent of permanent employees reported having paid sick days, only 13 per cent of temporary workers did. A report from DWHN notes that more than 70 per cent of low-income workers do not have paid sick days.
To Ladd, sluggish claims figures to date are further evidence that paid sick-leave laws must come in tandem with other labour reforms.
“We really need to have just-cause protection,” she said, referring to the right to be shielded from unfair termination. Currently, provincial employment standards legislation does not require employers to provide a reason for terminating workers.
Ontario employers can’t threaten or discipline a worker for taking infectious disease emergency leave — or for exercising any of their rights under provincial employment and workplace safety laws. But without proactive enforcement and just-cause protection, it often falls to workers to prove reprisals after they’ve already been fired, said Ladd.
Along with strengthening overall protections for vulnerable workers, paid sick days need to be a permanent right beyond the pandemic, said Stephen.
“I still see people leave the emergency department because they have to go to work because they don’t have access to paid sick leave,” he said.
Asked if current paid sick-leave protections will be made permanent, Ryan Whealy, acting press secretary for labour minister Monte McNaughton, said the government’s efforts “remain focused on getting workers and their families through the pandemic.”
New Zealand has recently increased the number of legislated paid sick days from five to 10, and Ireland is also phasing in 10 paid sick days.
“When we look at studies, we know that uptake of primary care, when it comes to hypertension, diabetes management — all of these things improve when people have the means to take time off,” said Stephen.
“This is way more than just a pandemic-specific issue. This is really a fundamental policy that would change the health of so many workers in this country.”