As the federal government discusses the possibility of implementing 10 paid sick days for workers across Canada amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, experts caution that doing so could be more costly than beneficial.
Lior Samfiru, an employment lawyer and co-founding partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said the federal government “can’t actually do anything,” because most of the country’s employees are governed provincially.
“So really it would be up to the provincial government to implement this,” he explained.
And Samfiru said while the provincial government can mandate it, the program’s associated costs would ultimately fall to employers.
“It seems to me that with the current economic situations and businesses struggling, (trying) to impose another obligation like that on an employer could be problematic,” he said.
Samfiru said employers are going to have to find that money somewhere, meaning they may be forced to make cuts to their employees’ existing benefits or pay.
“I’m not sure that it is really something that benefits employees in any way,” he said.
Samfiru said what the government could do is provide financial incentives for provinces that decide to implement this policy. Provincial governments could then in turn offer incentives to businesses.
“For example, if I’m an employer and I choose to provide my employees with paid sick days, then I may get a financial break maybe on my taxes from the government so that I have an incentive to offset the cost,” he explained.
Ultimately though, Samfiru said the policy likely won’t “carry too much favour” with the provinces.
And Moshe Lander, an economist at Concordia University, said with few details from Trudeau, it’s unclear if the federal government would be footing some of the bill.
“So whether it’s covered by (the Canada Emergency Response Benefit) or whether it’s covered by some new program, or whether it’s something that’s longer-lasting than the CERB — which is going to be phased out anyway in the next few months — that’s for the government to decide,” he said.
Lander added forcing businesses to offer 10 paid sick days to employees could be “productivity ruining” for some.
He said employees may take advantage of the extra paid days off, and use them when they are not actually sick.
This, in turn, would create monitoring issues, Lander said.
He said if employers require sick notes or other documentation from their employees, this could put an unnecessary burden on the health-care system.
And, if monitoring is not left to the government, Lander said it could become costly.
“Are we really going to hire a bunch of government employees to start going around from business to business saying ‘You were sick on May the 24th, now was that a real sickness and can you prove it? And where’s the documentary evidence of it?'” he said.
He said it would be much like how Employment Insurance (EI) or Canada Pension Plan (CPP) claims are handled.
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Ultimately, Lander too said this policy is “probably going to end up costing way more than it creates in benefits.”
“And I think that’s why it was so thin on details, it’s that the logistics of this are much more complicated than the headline (that’s) grabbing people,” he said.
What has government said?
The topic of paid sick leave has been pushed by the NDP, who say no Canadian should have to decide between going to work while sick and infecting their colleagues or staying home and not being able to pay the bills.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had previously suggested the federal government use the CERB or EI to deliver paid sick leave immediately and work with the provinces to secure two weeks of leave even after the pandemic is over.
The party made it clear that its support for the Liberal’s endeavour to suspend full sittings of the House of Commons through the summer is contingent on the government’s commitment to providing paid sick leave.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government would “continue discussions with the provinces without delay on ensuring that as we enter the recovery phase of the pandemic, every worker in Canada who needs it has access to 10 days of paid sick leave a year.”
Singh told the House of Commons Trudeau’s announcement was “positive,” but that it “is not enough.”
“We need to see the action as well,” he said. “And we are hopeful though that action will be coming.”
Samfiru said one thing the federal government could do “very easily” instead is amend the existing EI program.
Currently, if an employee who is sick for seven days can qualify for EI for up to 15 weeks — but there is a waiting period of one week.
“One of the things the government can do is waive that one-week period so that if I’m sick for the next three days and I cannot work, I can qualify for EI,” he said. “I may not get my full income, but at least I’ll get some compensation.”
But Samfiru said while that would alleviate the cost for employers, it would need to be paid for using tax dollars.
Lander said he thinks the money could be better spent directly targeting the virus head-on.
“So take all of that money that you’re planning on putting into this program and put it into advancing research to speed up the process of coming up with a vaccine,” he said. “In the absence of a vaccine then we need rapid and mass testing.”
–With files from the Canadian Press