Business groups wary of calls for paid sick day laws as COVID-19 looms

As fears of COVID-19 renew calls for government-mandated paid sick leave in Nova Scotia, some business groups say it’s best to leave it up to the employer.

The province’s labour code says employees are entitled to up to three days of unpaid sick leave each year. It doesn’t require employers to give their staff paid sick days, so such leaves are often based on contracts or collective agreements.

The federal government announced Wednesday it will waive the one-week waiting period for employment insurance to assist workers and businesses affected by the novel coronavirus and explore additional measures to support other affected Canadians, including income support for those not eligible for EI sickness benefits. 

On a provincial level, the Nova Scotia NDP is calling on the government to revisit tabled legislation that would allow all employees up to six days of paid sick leave each year.

While groups like the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre want to see legislation mandating paid sick leave for all workers, not everyone is on board with the idea.

Jordi Morgan, the Atlantic vice-president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), believes the government shouldn’t get involved in legislating sick day policies.

“Forcing businesses into a one-size-fits-all model for paid sick days makes them less able to offer their employees that kind of flexibility when they need it,” he said.

Jordi Morgan, Atlantic vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said businesses should set their own sick leave policies. (CBC)

There are alternatives if paid sick days aren’t possible, said Morgan.

He said more than 90 per cent of CFIB’s members offer some sort of flexible work arrangement for their staff, and a “significant” number of employers would allow their employees to work at home if needed.

“Those are all things that allow people to be able to continue to work, if they’re able to work, in a situation where it’s not going to put at risk other employees and their business,” he said.

Unfair for small business

Not everyone is able to work from home. Last week, CBC News spoke with three people in Nova Scotia who have gone to work at a food industry job while sick.

In 2013, more than half of American food workers surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they’ve gone to work sick. Lack of paid sick leave was one of the most common reasons given for why.

Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, said mandating paid sick time would unfairly impact smaller operations, which might not be able to afford to both cover the sick employee’s shift and pay them.

“If you’re a small company, it’s very difficult to absorb that cost,” he said. 

He said sick days are often one-to-two-day events, and people in the food and beverage industry are more likely to miss work because of sprains and cuts instead of communicable illnesses.

Stewart said more than 65 per cent of restaurants in Nova Scotia are independently owned, and they make an effort to “accommodate as much as possible.” This could mean offering up extra shifts to staff to make up for the ones lost.

In 2013, 60 per cent of American food workers surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they’ve gone to work sick. (Shutterstock)

 

Morgan, meanwhile, noted businesses might feel financial strain from the coronavirus because of a lack of traffic and supply chain issues.

“To add an additional source of stress on them economically by demanding that they provide paid sick benefits when it’s not in their current business plan, I don’t think is fair,” he said.

Morgan also said this isn’t the right time for this debate because “it’s a time when a public policy decision is being coloured by the possibility of a pandemic.”

Canada, U.S. lagging behind

On the other hand, Danny Cavanagh thinks the timing can’t be better.

Cavanagh, the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, said the group has been advocating for paid sick days for years, but the threat of COVID-19 could get more people paying attention to this issue.

“It may force people to think differently, maybe, about some of the things that we’ve been raising in the past,” he said.

According to an American report from 2007, at least 145 countries provide paid or partially paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 127 of those providing at least a week each year.

Canada and the U.S., meanwhile, don’t mandate paid sick leave. In Canada, rules about sick days vary from province to province, but there is no federal legislation mandating paid sick leave for all employees.

Cavanaugh said not having paid sick leave means some Nova Scotia workers, especially those in precarious jobs, can’t afford to take a day off.

Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Danny Cavanagh said we need to talk about this issue in the face of COVID-19. (CBC)

He added that people going to work sick and spreading illnesses can put more stress on the province’s already strained health-care system.

“We have a health-care system that is in crisis here in Nova Scotia, and putting people in situations where they’re going to spread a virus is not good,” he said. “And I think we can do better than that.”

On Wednesday, Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis said the province would have to “weigh the pros and cons” when it comes to legislating sick leave policies.

He said businesses might already feel strained by the minimum wage increase slated for April 1, and the sort of sick leave policy the NDP is proposing could add more pressure.

Kousoulis said he expects employers to “use their common sense” in the event of an outbreak.

“We shouldn’t have to regulate everything for employers in all aspects,” he said. “But I expect our employers would use common sense in terms of how they treat their employees.”

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