Business groups frustrated as sick leave debate carries on

As Gaibrie Stephen watches the idea of paid sick leave get tossed around like a political football, one thought keeps going through his mind.

“More people will get sick and die because of this,” said Stephen, an emergency room doctor who works at a hospital in Peel Region, which has been devastated by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephen, who’s also a member of Decent Work and Health, a group of health care workers advocating for mandatory paid sick leave, said patients stricken with COVID-19 have been flooding the emergency room where he works.

“The people I’m treating in the ER aren’t getting sick because they were going to a party or hanging out in big groups at Trinity Bellwoods. They’re getting sick because they had to go into their essential jobs, or live with someone who did,” said Stephen.

And those workplace outbreaks spread much further than necessary, Stephen argued, because essential workers without guaranteed paid sick leave can’t afford to stay home.

Listen to Robert Benzie discuss paid sick leave in Ontario

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit — which the Ontario government has proposed enhancing — is too slow and too risky for workers who live paycheque to paycheque, Stephen said. Paid sick leave which comes through a person’s employer is the surest way to keep sick workers at home, he added. Tuesday, the federal government seemed to leave the door open to Ontario’s initial proposal of doubling the CRSB benefit for eligible workers in the province.

Thus far, the provincial government has balked at forcing companies to provide sick leave, saying it wouldn’t be fair to increase the financial burden on already-struggling businesses.

Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said many small businesses are already at risk of disappearing, and can’t afford more expenses. While the CFIB would prefer some tinkering with the CRSB, they’re open to sick leave being paid by businesses, with one major caveat.

“Our preference would be to fix the federal program. But we’d be open to a program that flowed through businesses as long as there’s reimbursement from the province,” said Mallough. “Our members have taken on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt during this. They don’t have any wiggle room.”

Ultimately, though, anything which hastens the end of the pandemic would be welcome, said Mallough.

“No-one wants people coming in sick. We all want this pandemic to be over. We wanted it to be over a year ago,” Mallough said.

The country’s biggest manufacturing trade association called on the federal and provincial governments to solve the issue as quickly as possible.

“CME hopes that both governments will find a way to work together, and come up with a solution that recognizes the need for enhanced sick leave benefits now. Both manufacturers and workers need help to get through this difficult time, and they need it now,” said a written statement from Dennis Darby, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

“The last thing we want to see are workers having to choose whether to stay home because they are experiencing COVID symptoms, or go to work sick as the only way to help pay the rent,” Darby added.

Other business groups declined to offer substantive comment, preferring to stay out of the public debate.

“We understand that the government is looking at this issue and we will have more to say as this policy discussion evolves,” said the Retail Council of Canada.

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While businesses — and some governments — are inclined to focus on the upfront cost of providing paid sick leave, there are solid business arguments to make for supporting it, said Sheila Block, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“You can be closed down if there’s an outbreak. That’s a huge cost for a business,” said Block, noting that Peel Region and Toronto’s public health departments announced that they would temporarily close down businesses with five COVID cases or more during a two-week period.

Slowing COVID’s spread will also make it possible for the economy to open up sooner and more reliably, Block added. On-again, off-again lockdowns have been devastating for business owners who don’t know from week to week and month to month whether they’ll be allowed to welcome customers back, or under what conditions.

“What we know is that uncertainty is a huge problem for business,” said Block.

TORONTO STAR