Mary Leonard felt the anxiety creeping up as she noticed the scratch in the back of her throat.
The 61-year-old Metro clerk and grocery stocker has worked part-time at the supermarket for the past five years and previously worked there full-time from 1979, when it was branded Dominion, until 2016. She works anywhere from 16 to 37 hours a week. As a part-time employee, she does not have access to paid sick days.
She remembers, when she caught a cold last year in the midst of the pandemic, her first thought was not about her health, but about how it might affect her job — and, more importantly, her income.
“You think about it right? It freaks you out. Because you think, ‘Oh my goodness.’ You’re stuffed up, and your throat starts to go … it’s like, ‘Should I (go into work)?’ You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I really that sick?’”
Leonard is one of many Ontarians who have found themselves in this predicament during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Canada’s most populous province, it’s estimated that as many as 3.9 million employees do not have access to paid sick leave, according to Sheila Block, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. That estimate is based on a Statistics Canada labour force survey that tracks the percentage of workers who were paid when taking a week off work, she says.
The cruel irony is that the workers who can least afford to skip a day of work are the ones who have to pay the largest financial penalty when they get sick. With no sick days, they either work when they are ill or they don’t get paid. So, not surprisingly, many do come to work, even when they are not feeling well.
As the pandemic has progressed, this has been identified as a risk, and a rising chorus of health experts, labour organizations — even the mayor of Toronto — have called out for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to legislate paid sick days for front-line workers so they don’t feel obligated to come to work when they are feeling ill, potentially exposing their co-workers and the public to COVID-19.
Most recently, Toronto’s medical officer of health issued a report that characterized paid sick leave as an “essential” protection and called for the Ontario government to introduce five permanent paid sick days, increasing to 10 during an infectious disease break.
The Ontario government has resisted these calls. Premier Ford recently said there is “no reason” to mandate sick days, pointing to the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit program, which provides $ 500 a week for up to two weeks to workers who are ill, in self-isolation or at greater risk due to an existing medical condition, as an adequate measure to protect workers.
But one important piece of information has been missing from the debate — without legislation forcing them to, how many employers of front-line workers actually do voluntarily provide paid sick days?
To find out, the Star reached out to some of the larger retailers that have been allowed to stay open in the GTA during the second lockdown to find out what their sick-day policies are for front-line workers who come into contact with the public.
Not all of the large retailers that are currently open were contacted, and of those that were, many did not respond. Still, the answers were not encouraging.
None of the three largest supermarket chains in the country offer contractually obligated paid sick days to their part-time workers, the workers who make up the majority of the front-line across the three chains.
Dollarama does not provide paid sick days to its part-time employees. However, it says such workers do not need to draw upon sick days to take time off for COVID-19-related absences.
And perhaps most surprisingly, the LCBO, a Crown corporation accountable to Ontario’s minister of finance, does not offer sick days for most of its front-line workers either. Full-time employees receive 15 “attendance credits,” which it says are equivalent to days they can use if sick.
While the supermarkets and some others have introduced special pay and job protection programs for workers during the pandemic, they are expected to be temporary.
Loblaw Companies Ltd., which owns Loblaws, No Frills and other supermarket brands, has a pay protection program that tops up the federal subsidy for COVID-19-related absences.
Empire Company Ltd., which owns Sobeys, introduced a lockdown bonus program that provides an additional $ 10 to $ 100 a week, based on the number of hours worked.
Metro Inc. has a financial-assistance program that is based on the employment insurance formula that tops up to 95 per cent of the employees pay.
Among the businesses that did not respond to multiple requests for comment are Canadian Tire and Rexall Pharmacy Group. TD Bank and Couche-Tard, which operates Circle K convenience stores, declined to provide information on their sick day policy.
A representative with Unifor, which represents approximately 15,000 workers at supermarkets across Canada, said none of their part-time members at any of the three largest supermarket chains (Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys) receive a single paid sick day that is covered under their collective agreement, although there is flexibility to take time off for COVID-19-related absences.
The workers at these chains who do not have access to paid sick days are those who are employed on a part-time, contract or casual basis.
Based on Unifor’s research, about 75 to 80 per cent of employees in any given supermarket are employed part-time, with that number rising even higher in discount stores such No Frills and Food Basics.
“All of the major grocery that we work with don’t provide (paid) sick days to workers in the part-time category despite the fact that the vast majority of their employees are in that category,” said Chris MacDonald, a Unifor representative. “That’s a deliberate effort to not provide benefits.”
MacDonald said there’s been a “slow erosion” of full-time jobs to part-time jobs in the grocery industry over the past several decades, which results in a two-tiered system that leaves the vast majority of workers without access to paid sick days.
“That is a definite strategy that has been consistent in the grocery industry for the last number of years that we’ve experienced with every single one of the large grocers,” he added.
“They have consistently over decades reduced the number of full-time workers that had pensions, benefits and sick days, to more precarious part-time jobs, with no guarantee of hours.”
Loblaws told the Star it could not provide a breakdown of how many workers are full- or part-time because it has a wide range of formats across its corporate, franchise, grocery, pharmacy and distribution centre operations. It added its stores are covered by dozens of collective bargaining agreements so there is no company-wide policy for paid sick days.
At Metro, 61 per cent of employees are part-time and do not have access to regular paid sick days. The company’s annual information form says, “These positions are most often found in the stores and are frequently first-time jobs for people who are entering the job market for the first time.”
The picture at Sobeys is slightly different. In a statement, it said “more than half” of front-line workers in its stores and distribution centres are full-time employees and have access to paid sick days, while most of their part-time employment contracts do not include paid sick days.
The companies collectively employ more than 300,000 people, with the lion’s share of those working at various Loblaws-owned stores.
Dollarama, which has also been deemed essential during the pandemic, also employs a workforce of about 60 per cent part-time employees, who do not get regular paid sick days.
The same goes for the LCBO, where 61 per cent of more than 10,000 employees are part-time.
Debbie McGuinness, president of OPSEU Local 5110, which represents LCBO workers in Toronto, said that number is actually close to 70 per cent.
“I think it’s disgraceful that our government is not introducing legislation for companies like the LCBO (to provide) paid sick days for everyone. … The fact that we don’t have paid sick days (for part-time) puts us all in a dangerous situation.” McGuinness said.
Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said, in many cases, workers that are classified as part-time actually work full-time hours because the company allows them to, without changing their employment status.
“It’s a well-known strategy in industries like retail, warehousing and manufacturing, that if they classify their people as part-time, casual or temp, it gives them an automatic denial of that benefit of paid sick days,” Coates said.
“In retail, you can find, for example, that employees have been working for, I don’t know, eight years, 10 years part-time. They’re classified as part-time but they work full-time hours,” she added.
MacDonald, with Unifor, said the supermarkets have been impervious to efforts by the unions to instate paid sick days for part-time workers.
“It’s clear that the large retail corporations are not going to do the right thing and offer sick time to workers in part-time categories. … Most of these employers don’t want to give us these things in bargaining. They would rather the government legislated. And the reason for that is because it levels the playing field,” he said, using the example of a rise in minimum wage that all supermarkets would have to contend with in their cost structure.
The previous Liberal government under Kathleen Wynne introduced Bill 148, which in addition to forcing employers to pay part-time and casual staff the same wage as full-time workers, also introduced two paid sick days for all workers.
The Ford government, under the Making Ontario Open for Business Act, repealed that legislation.
Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s minister of labour, training and skills development, said he was infrastructure minister at the time and thus could not speak to why exactly the government scrapped this legislation.
“I know there was a lot of concern from small businesses,” he said.
Like Premier Ford, McNaughton pointed to the federal government’s program as to why the provincial government is not introducing paid sick day legislation.
When asked if there would be value in the province revisiting paid sick days, McNaughton was noncommittal.
“I think we have to get through this pandemic. I realize that these are very, very challenging times for workers, they’re also very challenging times for small businesses. … The discussion will continue with both parties post pandemic. But I don’t want to speak to hypotheticals.”
As for Leonard, she continues to work her night shift at Metro. There are days when it can be stressful — she is scared of COVID-19, as her husband is currently undergoing treatment for lung and throat cancer.
“You see all those people that go through your cash. And it’s scary. Some of these people have their masks below their nose or underneath their chin,” Leonard said.
When asked how she would respond to the premier saying provincial legislation is “not needed” for paid sick days, her response was brisk.
“I would say we absolutely do need it. And you need to come to my workplace and walk around with me for a day. You need to walk in my shoes and everybody else like me.”
— With files from Sara Mojtehedzadeh