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EDITORIAL: Legislated dignity for the greater good (Feb. 2021)

March 5th, 2021 · No Comments

COVID-19 case counts are way down from the peaks seen in January, and in response the economy is opening up in many places. However, Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Dr. Eileen de Villa, and Peel’s MOH Dr. Lawrence Loh, have asked the province to continue lockdowns, stating their fear that the worst is yet to come. They also each advocate for mandatory paid sick days to encourage the symptomatic to stay home and stop the spread.

Loh and de Villa are anticipating the impact of COVID-19 variants from Britain, South Africa, and Brazil. In Germany, the number of cases caused by variants went from six to 22 per cent in two weeks, almost doubling every week. This has started happening here, too. According to Dr. Peter Juni, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table director, the variants are doubling every eight days in Ontario. The variants also happen to spread faster, have higher rates of hospitalization and may be more deadly. This growth is happening behind the mask of falling case counts. As Loh put it, we are “looking at a mirage, the numbers are a mirage.”

The tension between the desire to open the economy and the need to keep people safe has some questioning the distinction between the two. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, whose region of Peel has been among the hardest hit in the country, argues reopening the economy “won’t work if it’s under threat, and the variants are a threat.” 

While we’ve seen limits on how non-essential businesses (restaurants, bars, and retail) can function, factories, warehouses and distribution centres have continued to operate as per usual. According to Dr. Loh, in a study conducted in Peel on 7,874 people who tested positive for COVID-19, almost 2,000 of them went to work with symptoms. Eighty of those people even went to work after a positive diagnosis.

They could’ve just stayed home, if only they had sick leave. Only 42 per cent of Canadians have access to paid sick leave. Only 10 per cent of low-wage and frontline workers have this benefit. Until Doug Ford eliminated them in 2019, workers in Ontario had two whole days of paid emergency leave. These are the people Ford calls “heroes.” These heroes are like everyone else lacking access to paid sick leave. At any sign of illness they are faced with an impossible decision of either staying home or paying rent and possibly infecting co-workers. 

The federal government stepped up with its own sick day program called the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). That benefit offers a maximum of $900 of support over two weeks, though its target is individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. While it’s a welcome support it is cumbersome and insufficient, amounting to less than a minimum wage benefit that comes weeks later. 

Besides, this doesn’t change the fact that employment standards are solely Ontario’s responsibility under the constitution.

As Unifor President Jerry Dias put it so eloquently in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed piece “We can shut all the restaurants we want, force every retailer to switch to curbside pickup and fine people for hugging their neighbours, but until we get serious about paid sick days, there will be no way out of this pandemic.”

No business wants to go first and offer paid sick days when others are holding out. Sick days need to be legislated, for the sake of our population’s health – if not the economy’s.


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