Calls grow for permanent paid sick leave as N.S. tells people to ‘get back out there’
Nova Scotia’s temporary paid sick leave program may be over, but the COVID-19 pandemic is not – and advocates are calling for permanent paid sick leave legislation as COVID cases continue to grow.
It was intended to complement the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which is set to expire in May.
COVID-19 cases have been skyrocketing since the province lifted most public health measures – such as mandatory masking and capacity limits – last month, not long before the paid sick leave program ended.
Chris Parsons, the provincial coordinator for the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, said the temporary program was “inadequate” to begin with, but “better than nothing.”
“Allowing the paid sick day program to expire at the same time as we got rid of all other health protections strikes me as, at best, an oversight that puts people’s lives in danger,” he said.
“It doesn’t make sense to me at all.”
Premier Tim Houston said on Friday that his government was willing to revisit the program, but made no immediate commitments.
“We know when people aren’t feeling well they should be staying home, for sure, that’s well-known,” Houston said.
He said the government is looking at the federal program and is also analyzing the uptake of the provincial program, where the established budget “wasn’t fully used.” In fact, only about $1.2 million of the $16 million allocated has been used so far.
But Parsons said the program, as it stands, isn’t working, as demonstrated by the unused funds. He said workers need more than just four sick days, and only making the program available for people who need to miss work due to COVID-19 is too narrow in scope.
“What we really need is 10 paid sick days, paid by the employer, that’s made permanent – not just for COVID, but for all health concerns,” he said.
“It’s absurd that we’re two years into this and we still don’t have it, and that puts people’s lives in danger and it puts our public health-care system in danger as well.”
Parsons said in addition to a permanent sick leave program, there need to be further protections for workers so they don’t face repercussions from their employer if they take sick days.
Despite recording an average of 1,000 new cases per day last week – and despite the fact that some surgeries are being delayed due to COVID-19 infections – there are no plans to reinstate public health measures like mandatory masking in public places.
Parsons said he doesn’t believe the province is properly addressing the reality of what we know about COVID-19.
“We know, for example, that ‘long COVID’ is a real threat and allowing the pandemic to just run like wildfire through Nova Scotia endangers the long-term viability of the health-care system,” he said.
“If the Houston government is serious about fixing health care in the short, medium and long term, it can’t just take a ‘let ‘er rip’ approach to dealing with COVID-19.”
Parsons said not being able to afford to stay home is a “major barrier” for workers, which may cause them to go to work while sick, furthering the spread of infectious illnesses.
He said he has his own experience with that. Years ago, before the pandemic, he said he caught pneumonia, but still had to go to his job at a coffee shop because he didn’t have paid sick days and couldn’t afford time off.
“It’s kind of a horrifying thing to think about the fact that I was hacking and coughing in the dish pit all day,” he said. “But when you look at something like COVID-19 that’s exponentially more dangerous and more contagious, it’s absurd to me that we would continue that kind of policy.”
Even though, for a while, it may have looked like the pandemic may lead to a “real culture shift” for worker’s rights, Parsons said that has “backslid” over the past few months.
“It’s like we didn’t learn any lessons from the previous two years,” he said.
“I think that is going to be, in some way, the disappointing legacy of COVID-19: we’re all just going to put our heads in the sand and try to pretend like nothing happened, even though this has been one of the most collectively traumatizing and disrupting events, really, of several generations.”
Permanent sick leave ‘a bigger question’
The NDP has a bill before the legislature that would give workers in the province up to 10 paid sick days a month. On Friday, leader Gary Burrill said action needs to be taken as soon as possible.
“I’m encouraged that they’re looking at (revisiting the paid sick leave program) but they need to have it quickly,” he said. “They need to move on this with some haste.”
Premier Houston told reporters that same day that the province is “looking at what’s available” to best protect Nova Scotians.
Asked why the province can’t make paid sick days part of the Labour Standards Code, he said “it’s a bigger question.”
“There’s ramifications, so we try to be careful when we’re establishing government policy that we understand all the moving parts,” he said, adding that “there’s a lot of really good employers” in the province.
“Most small business owners I know, they do consider their staff to be family, they really do,” he said, without indicating which businesses, in what sector, and how many.
However, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study about paid sick leave released over the summer suggests that when the decision is left up to the employer, paid sick days aren’t always part of the deal.
According to the report, authored by researchers from Acadia University, more than half of Nova Scotians — 54 per cent — do not have access to paid sick leave.
Further, it said the province’s Labour Standards Code is “among the worst in the county” as workers are entitled to just three days of sick leave, unpaid, per year.
Access to paid sick leave “tends to be associated with permanent, full-time and unionized jobs,” it said.
“Younger workers, workers who are single, have high school education or less, or earn less than $25,000 have the least access to paid sick leave,” it said.
A ‘difficult choice’
The study, which looked at paid sick leave across three sectors, noted that just 42 per cent of responding retail workers had access to some form of paid sick leave.
Among those retail workers without paid sick leave, 41 per cent of respondents said they have gone to work while sick – the vast majority of whom reported doing so because they needed the money.
Rebecca Casey, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and an assistant professor in Acadia University’s department of sociology, said she has long been interested in access to paid sick leave.
“There’s been a real push that if you’re sick you should stay home, which I strongly support,” she said. “But I also don’t think that a lot of us are thinking about those who just can’t afford to.”
Casey, one of the report’s authors, said she especially wanted to look at retail workers, who are often not unionized and whose sole protections are decreed by the Labour Standards Code.
“Here they are, low-paid, really relying on their salary or their hourly wage,” she said. “And if they get COVID or if they get sick, then they have to make this difficult choice of, ‘Do I go to work sick and then infect the public and my coworkers?’ Or, ‘Do I go without the pay and then how am I paying for my rent, my food?’”
Casey said most people who have access to paid sick days are not “abusing” the system by taking time off when they don’t need it – noting that the budget for Nova Scotia’s temporary paid sick leave program went largely unused.
“In general, studies have found that people take just a handful of sick days every year, and that they’re not abusing the program,” she said.
“But it’s a nice safety net for people, that they do have it, so that you don’t have to worry about what to do if you become sick.”
While groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have argued against employer-paid sick leave in the past, saying it would hurt small business, Casey said it should just be considered as another cost of being an employer, like paid vacation days.
“I do feel for the small workplaces. Costs are going up, it is expensive to run a business,” she said. “But I also think that if you can’t invest in your employees, should you be running a business?”
“Individuals and workers have really borne the brunt of this pandemic over the last two years,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask for employers to pay the people who actually generate profit for them a fair wage, and also to ensure they have paid sick days when they get sick.”
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