The British Columbia government released details of a permanent paid sick leave program.
All workers in B.C. will be eligible for five days of sick pay as of Jan. 1, the province announced Wednesday. Businesses will be legally required to provide the days to their employees.
“Beginning in the new year, workers will no longer lose pay for making the responsible choice of taking a sick day,” Premier John Horgan said.
“The pandemic has highlighted that when workers don’t have paid sick leave, it’s bad for them, it’s bad for their coworkers and it’s bad for their employers.”
In May, the province gave all workers up to three days of paid sick leave to support those affected by COVID-19 until Dec. 31.
At the time, Labour Minister Harry Bains said the number of sick days under a permanent program would be determined through consultation.
The BC Federation of Labour advocated for 10 days of leave, arguing that other OECD countries like Australia, New Zealand and Sweden meet that bar or surpass it.
Horgan’s government settled on five days after assessing the impacts of the province’s temporary three-day program.
About half of B.C. employees do not have access to paid sick leave.
During a two-month period at the height of the pandemic, workplace outbreaks led to nearly 200 businesses being shut down in the Fraser Health region alone.
An evaluation of the temporary program, which allowed for sick days for any COVID-19 symptom, found that most workers did not need additional sick days on top of what was already provided.
A survey also found 98 per cent of businesses felt that workers did not abuse the paid sick leave program.
Feedback from the workplaces that already provide paid sick leave found that most workers take between zero and five days of sick leave each year.
“Many of the people who lack paid sick leave are the same workers we depended on most during the pandemic,” Bains said.
“Lower-wage workers who help us get our groceries, prepare our food at restaurants, and make sure we have the services we need deserve a basic protection like paid sick leave.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) president Dan Kelly says the decision from the BC government to implement five days of permanent paid sick days is tone-deaf to the realities small businesses are facing.
Recent CFIB survey results show local businesses are in no position to afford this new program set to come into effect with only 38 days’ notice on January 1, 2022.
“We are disappointed the BC government has not acknowledged or taken into consideration the challenges and realities struggling small business are facing and call on the government to offset these new costs immediately,” Kelly said.
“All of this is coming at a time when the average BC small business is carrying $129,348 in COVID-19 related debt and estimates it will take around 21 months to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic.”
On the flip side, major labour groups are saying the measures do not go far enough.
The B.C. Federation of Labour was advocating for at least a minimum of 10 paid sick days per year.
“This is an important achievement for public health and safer workplaces,” BC fed president Laird Cronk said.
“But we’re disappointed that it’s only half the 10-day standard that science supports and that is the overwhelming preference of British Columbians.”
The B.C. government said it also made the decision with small businesses in mind, considering businesses will pick up the cost after many struggled through COVID-19 impacts.
The province looked at jurisdictions with mandated paid sick leave, including Australia, New Zealand and several European countries, and said experience there showed the cost increases for most employers were less than expected.
They also experienced significant benefits, including increased productivity and retention of trained staff, reduced risks of injury, improved morale, and increased participation in the labour force.
The five days will be the most offered by any provincial government. Quebec offers two days and Prince Edward Island offers one.
The federal government has mandated 10 days of sick leave for all workers in federally regulated workplaces and has promised to pass that legislation by the end of the year.
– With files from Simon Little and The Canadian Press