Ontario doesn't give paid sick leave. Can small businesses change that?

Sara Miller Llana
·6 min read

Even before the pandemic, Ottawa bakery Bread by Us went beyond the number of paid sick days that Ontario requires. Not that it was hard to do – under province law, employers don’t have to provide any paid sick days at all to workers.

But when the bakery gradually re-opened after a pandemic shutdown last spring, co-owner Jessica Carpinone decided to go big, despite tight margins, and institute unlimited sick days for her dozen employees.

It’s not just the right thing to do, she says. It makes the best business sense.

She’s joined a growing chorus – including long-time advocates for workers’ rights and unions, but also doctors, public health officials, and Ontario mayors – who have turned up pressure on the province to mandate paid time off when employees are ill.

Among them, it’s the voice of small-business owners like Ms. Carpinone who may shift the debate away from the binary thinking that more employee benefits are employer losses. The long fight for workers’ rights has moved to the forefront due to a pandemic that has exposed glaring inequities, with low-paid, often essential workers most at risk of COVID-19 and the least likely to have days off. But that fight has also aligned with a public health message that essentially says that everyone benefits from a workforce with paid sick days – from employees to customers to companies that mitigate risk and maintain their reputations as safe places of business.

“Business interests are often touted as the main reason behind lack of action on measures like paid sick days,” says Ms. Carpinone, who is part of the Better Way Alliance, a group pushing Ontario to legislate permanent paid sick leave for all. “But it is in our interest as business owners to employ a healthy workforce, period. ... And I believe that if my friends, owners of ice cream shops, coffee shops, restaurants, can implement these measures, there is no excuse.”

“You’re not going to wait until it blows up”

“Stay home if sick” has been the dominating guideline across the globe since a pandemic was declared March 11, 2020. But nearly a year later, that principle remains out of reach for many.

In Canada, provinces are in charge of sick pay itself, and 58% of workers have no access. That number rises to 70% of workers who earn less than $25,000 annually, according to federal figures.

The federal government offers workers long-term sick leave, including time off for family caregiving that in many ways makes it a global model, says Jody Heymann, founding director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health. That gives Canadians more security than many Americans: the U.S. is one of just 11 countries that, outside the pandemic, offers no policy at the federal level on sick leave.

“But Canada does have important gaps to fill,” she says.

Canada implemented a federal temporary program in the pandemic that offers income support, recently extended to four weeks, for COVID-19-related leave. But it doesn’t cover pay fully, and isn’t remitted immediately.

Critics also say too many workers fall through the cracks. The program applies to those who have missed at least 50% of their scheduled work week, so those who wake up feeling unwell for a day, for example, would not get a full, uninterrupted paycheck. “It disincentivizes people to follow public health advice,” says Carolina Jimenez, coordinator of the Decent Work and Health Network.

Ms. Carpinone had to pay an employee for a week while their COVID-19 results were pending. Yes, it was a hassle. “I can’t sugarcoat it and say that it doesn’t cost anything, but it’s something that you budget in. It’s like saying, how much does it cost to repair an oven before it starts a fire? You’re not going to wait until it blows up.”

Doing right by employees

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose Conservative government got rid of the province’s two required sick days in 2018 after taking office, said reinstating them would duplicate the federal support, calling it a “waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says activists for paid sick leave have been seizing on the pandemic as an opportunity to push for permanent, employer-paid leave. While he says shortcomings in the federal program should be fixed, he finds the current debate disingenuous. “They have made the public believe that there is no paid sick leave in Canada, and that employees are forced to go to work sick,” he says.

But data shows many indeed are. In Peel, the region outside Toronto and one of the worst-hit areas for COVID-19, the public health agency released a study showing that 25% of workers went to work with symptoms between August and January. Mayors in the area wrote a joint letter calling on the Ford government to adopt sick days. So did a group representing 34 public health units of Ontario.

Ms. Jimenez says people are shocked to learn that, as a part-time nurse in Toronto, she doesn’t have paid sick days. “People audibly gasp,” she says. She could scrape by if sick, but workers depending on each hour of their paychecks have to make impossible choices. Often it’s women and minorities forced to make those choices, she says. “The pandemic has made the inequalities that we’ve had for a long, long time even more glaring.”

Helmi Ansari, CEO of Grosche International in Cambridge, Ontario, says that his own thinking evolved as a business owner – and he has hope that the pandemic will shift other employers’ minds on fair work.

When Mr. Ansari started his corporate career, he dreamed of one day being the boss with the corner office. When he and his wife started Grosche in their laundry room in 2006, selling tea and coffee craft brewing products, he thought paying over minimum wage made him a “good guy.” Then he learned how much workers struggled at those salaries. He joined the movement for a living wage and today is fighting with the Better Way Alliance for paid sick leave.

He offers five days to his 15 employees, a potential cost of 2%-3% of payroll, he says, but many never take it. “There is this common narrative that we hear that is doom and gloom … but this is an investment that does pay back,” he says. “More and more I see people in political circles talking about the importance of this, recognizing that the way we’re trying to attack this pandemic and future pandemics is really broken with the absence of paid sick leave.”

“We’re telling workers to either put food on the table or you come to work sick. In Canada, one of the most developed countries in the world, it’s a shame that workers have to make that choice,” he says. “And our economy is actually suffering more because we don’t have sick days.”

Editor's note: The headline was updated to clarify the scope of the story.

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