POLITICS
08/19/2020 15:49 EDT

School Won’t Be Safe Without Paid Sick Days: Experts

Over half of Canadian workers have no access to paid sick days.

HuffPost Canada
Kyle Hoskin is a a municipal waste collector from the Niagara region.

When Kyle Hoskin got pneumonia in January, he couldn’t take time off or get a doctor’s note. 

The municipal waste collector from Niagara Region in Ontario ended up infecting 35 of his colleagues, 20 of whom missed work because of their sickness. 

“Had I had a paid sick day, I would have been able to afford to go to the doctor and see the doctor and get treated,” Hoskin said at a Wednesday press conference. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”

He handles waste from almost everyone in the region while doing his job, so Hoskin said he is confident he will contract COVID-19.

“As soon as one of my co-workers gets COVID, we’re all going to get COVID,” he said. “None of us can go to the hospital, none of us can go to the doctor without losing our pay and putting our families at risk financially.”

Andrew Francis Wallace via Getty Images
Carolina Jimenez is a registered nurse and coordinator of the decent work and health group, a coalition of healthcare professionals and labour advocates.

Hoskin is one of several front-line workers who are calling for permanent paid sick days in Canada. A June report from the Atkinson Foundation found 58 per cent of Canadians workers have no access to paid sick days. Over 70 per cent of workers who make less than $25,000 also have no access to these days.

A report released Wednesday by the Decent Work and Health Network (DWHN) calls for provinces, territories and the federal government to update their employment standards to provide seven permanent sick days, with an additional 14 paid sick days during public health emergencies like the pandemic. Paid sick days should be universally available to all workers no matter their immigration status or type of work and should not require doctor’s notes, it says.

Canada lags behind other countries in guaranteeing access to paid sick days, the report states. While all Canadian provinces have implemented a form of job-protected emergency leave in response to the pandemic, those leaves are temporary, unpaid and only apply to COVID-19-related absences, according to the report. The Yukon introduced a rebate for employers to provide paid sick days, but it’s a temporary measure and up to an employer’s discretion. 

Workers who are denied sick days are the ones who most need them, said Carolina Jimenez, a registered nurse and DWHN coordinator.

“Time and time again, we have seen the COVID-19 outbreaks and tragedies at workplaces, whether it’s on farms, in industrial bakeries, at meat processing plants or in long-term care homes,” Jimenez said. 

“Precarious work, including the lack of paid sick days, is putting workers lives, and public health, at risk.” 

Jimenez said she has “fundamental concerns” with the federal government’s proposed sick day plan, which would give workers 10 paid sick days for reasons relating to COVID-19.

Hoskin’s story of spreading pneumonia to his co-workers shows the need for paid sick days to be a permanent measure that isn’t only related to COVID-19, Jimenez said. Research also indicates if there are barriers like requiring a doctor’s note, workers will likely choose to go to work sick, she said.

Dr. Monika Dutt, a family physician and public health specialist from Nova Scotia, said the 10 days in the proposed federal plan are inadequate because of the 14-day self-isolation period required for people who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

WATCH: Canada bracing for fall peak of COVID-19: Tam. Story continues below.

 

People who have COVID-19 are also sick for weeks, or months in some cases, she noted.

“I think we really need to look at an adequate number of days to cover both COVID-19 as well as the other illnesses and health conditions people need to deal with,” she said.

A spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Labour did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Bradley Metlin, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, said passing job-protected leave for eligible workers to stay home for COVID-19-related reasons was one of the government’s first measures in response to the pandemic. The $19-billion Safe Restart Agreement federal funding to provinces and territories included $1.1 billion for paid sick leave, he said.

... even if [people] have a runny nose and might have symptoms they don’t get tested because they need a paycheque ...Ontario Premier Doug Ford

At his Wednesday press conference, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he hopes to see Ontario’s $7 billion share of federal funding come in the next couple of weeks, but he couldn’t say how much of the money would go to the 10 paid sick day program.

When asked if the program would be enough to limit the spread of the virus approaching flu season, Ford said giving people 10 days off could be helpful. 

“A lot of people can’t afford to take time off, that was the whole purpose of this. You know, they’re struggling and even if they have a runny nose and might have symptoms they don’t get tested because they need a paycheque, and they’re relying on that paycheque to pay for rent and mortgage and put food on the table,” he said.

Paid sick days essential for safe school reopening

The DWHN report also states that paid sick days should cover family emergencies and responsibilities as well as personal sickness.

This is especially important as schools across the country begin to reopen, Dutt said. Public health advice is for schools to call a parent or caregiver if a child is sick at school — so those adults need to be able to leave work without fear of losing money or their job. 

“There can’t be a safe return to school without paid sick days,” said Sarah Vance, a Toronto high school teacher who is also part of Ontario Education Workers United.

Paid sick days need to cover all education workers, Vance said, such as bus drivers, cleaners and occasional or supply teachers.

In every one of the eight schools she’s worked in during her 10 years as a teacher, she’s taught students whose parents work multiple low-paying jobs, she said. Many of those parents are racialized or newcomers to Canada.

“Parents can’t afford to stay home when their kids are sick. Sick kids will have to come to school, putting everyone at risk.”

Ontario’s school reopening guide states that if a student is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, they must be isolated in a separate room until they can go home, and students and staff who test positive must stay home until their return to school is cleared by public health.

“I'm very, very afraid that this will be a public health disaster ...Sarah Vance, high school teacher

Unless every parent and guardian in Ontario can access paid sick days, this public health guidance will be “impossible” to follow, Vance said.

“The bottom line is that without paid sick days for all workers, we’re guaranteed to have sick children in public schools, spreading COVID-19,” she said. 

“I’m very, very afraid that this will be a public health disaster, and it will set us up for a second wave of the pandemic that will force a complete shutdown.”

Paid sick days would also help the students who work in precarious jobs to support their families, such as at grocery stores or cleaning office buildings, she added.

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