Growing chorus urging Ontario to include paid sick days in new COVID-19 restrictions

When Wendolyne Molina Hurtado tested positive for COVID-19 in late November, she made the difficult but prudent decision to leave work and quarantine at home until her symptoms dissipated.

While her actions may have prevented an outbreak at the big-box retailer where she works, the decision was also a costly one, since Molina Hurtado doesn’t have access to paid sick days as a part-time worker.

“We don’t work during this time, and don’t have money for rent, for nothing,” Molina Hurtado said. 

Her wife, also an essential worker, was advised to isolate alongside Molina Hurtado, leaving their family without any source of income for nearly three weeks.

“The money we have at this moment was just used for food,” she said.

Concerns over a lack of access to paid sick days have been raised throughout the pandemic. However, those calls have grown increasingly urgent as Ontario finds itself in the grips of a second wave that shows no sign of letting up.

Yet despite surging case counts and deaths, essential workers in industries such as food service, manufacturing and the trades have few options even when they come down with COVID-19 symptoms.

“Even before the pandemic that was an issue and now it’s even more heightened,” said Floydeen Charles-Fridal, executive director of Caribbean African Canadian Social Services (CAFCAN).

Floydeen Charles-Fridal, executive director of Caribbean African Canadian Social Services (CAFCAN), says ‘hardly any’ of her organization’s clients have access to paid sick days. (Caribbean African Canadian Social Services)

Charles-Fridal said a negligible number of CAFCAN’s clients have access to paid sick days through their employers. She said people without those benefits are often violating public health recommendations because isolating would mean lost wages.

That phenomenon is said to be deepening long-standing equity issues.

“People are choosing to go to work when they’re not well, and we see that playing out as an organization that exists to serve the Black community,” Charles-Fridal said.

Giving more workers access to paid sick days would allow them to make better health decisions, she added.

“Knowing that it’s paid takes a little bit of that burden off of folks, because they wouldn’t be as likely to cover up symptoms, ignore symptoms, all of those kinds of things.”

GTHA Mayors, Toronto’s top doctor call for paid sick days

The provincial government is expected to announce new public health measures Tuesday to slow the spread of COVID-19, and a growing number of health experts, politicians and community groups say a paid sick leave program must be among the changes.

Toronto’s medical officer of health on Monday called on the province to fund at least 10 paid sick days for all workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and any future infectious disease emergencies.

A group of Toronto and Hamilton-area mayors, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, also called on the province to take action on sick pay this week.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA), which represents the province’s doctors, has also championed paid sick days as a critical measure that could slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We keep asking people to make the difficult decision to stay home, and they don’t necessarily have the capacity to make that decision,” said OMA president Dr. Samantha Hill.

Providing wider access to paid sick days would “empower” people to make better decisions, Hill said.

“Those who don’t have paid sick days … they’re going into work and endangering others because they don’t have a choice.”

Sick workers can be paid $500 weekly

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the provincial government said its federal counterparts have rightly assumed responsibility for paid sick leave during the pandemic. 

Those efforts include the new Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit in 2020, which provides $500 per week ($450 after tax deductions) to workers who are sick or need to isolate due to COVID-19.

(Molina Hurtado said she applied for this benefit but has not yet received any payments.)

“We appreciate the federal government’s work on paid sick days, and have made clear no one should have to choose between their job and their health,” reads the statement from the office of the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

The province also highlighted legislation to protect workers who must self-isolate, or take leave to care for loved ones, from being fired.

Critics say those programs are insufficient, since they do not cover a full salary even at minimum wage.

“[Paid sick leave] needs to be mandatory and it needs to be available and it needs to be accessible, and right now we don’t have any of those things in this province,” said Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto’s Board of Health.

Charles-Fridal said enhancements to paid sick leave should be made immediately if the province hopes to reverse the disparities that have appeared to grow during the pandemic.

“The longer you leave these situations unattended,” she said, “the worse the society as a whole becomes.”

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