VICTORIA – Workers affected by COVID-19 in British Columbia will qualify for up to three days of paid sick leave under proposed legislation that Premier John Horgan says will plug holes in a federal plan and lay the groundwork for a permanent program.
Horgan said Tuesday that the program would bridge the gap for workers between the time they first feel sick and when they can access the federal benefit, a pledge that some critics say doesn’t go far enough.
“No one should have to make the difficult decision between staying home when they’re sick and going into work because they have an economic imperative to do so,” Horgan said.
“Today we’re making that choice a little bit easier.”
Labour Minister Harry Bains introduced the legislation Tuesday, saying it would be effective until Dec. 31 and apply to anyone who shows COVID-19 symptoms, self-isolates or gets tested.
Employers will be required to pay workers their full wages and those without an existing sick leave program will be reimbursed by the government $200 per day for each worker.
WorkSafeBC, the provincial injury prevention and safety agency, will begin administering the program next month and employers will be required to cover the difference for those workers who earn more than $200 a day.
Bains also said a permanent entitlement to paid personal injury and illness leave would take effect in January, although the number of entitlement days would be determined through consultation in the coming months.
“Having paid sick leave is good for businesses, good for workers, good for our communities and will help our economy recover faster,” Bains said in the legislature on Tuesday.
About half of B.C. employees do not currently have access to paid sick leave, according to government estimates.
British Columbia’s proposed legislation closely matches the program introduced in Ontario, which has come under heavy criticism for falling short of what’s needed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Horgan said last month the province was considering its own sick-leave program after the federal government failed to bring in a national plan that would fill in the gaps of the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.
The federal program covers lost wages of $450 a week after taxes, which is less than B.C.’s minimum wage.
Critics have said workers who qualify for the federal benefit have faced delays getting the money and often get a pay cut, obstacles that push people to go to work even when they’re not feeling well.
Horgan said he’s been disappointed that the federal government has allocated $2.6 billion to the program but only managed to get $400 million out the door.
“That doesn’t speak to the lack of need for the program, that speaks to the inadequacy of construction,” he said.
Neither he nor Bains could say how quickly the provincial funds would reach employees, but they said WorkSafeBC’s existing relationship with employers will make it flow more quickly than programs created from scratch, such as some of the province’s lagging pandemic relief for businesses.
Two major unions welcomed the news of a permanent paid sick leave program on the horizon, while saying the temporary COVID-19 measure is lacking.
“Although three days per calendar year is inadequate, today’s announcement opens the door for future expansion,” Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, said in a statement.
The B.C. Federation of Labour said it will advocate for up to 10 days of paid leave per year, as a basic public health protection and employment right for all. At the same time, it expressed concern with the limited temporary COVID-19 measure.
“Workers struggling with a COVID-19 illness face far greater than three days of lost pay, they face potential economic devastation,” president Laird Cronk said in a statement.
“Ensuring workers don’t have to make the untenable decision between staying home with symptoms or working sick to put food on the table and pay the rent is critical during this deadly race between variants and vaccines.”
Horgan defended three days as enough time for workers to access other programs.
“I do believe it’s going to be sufficient to get that test done and get the result from that test and then to access the other programs available,” he said, pointing to both the federal benefit and workers’ compensation for those people who catch COVID-19 at work.
The Surrey Board of Trade issued a statement saying it was pleased with the proposed legislation.
“Businesses in the hardest hit industries will finally get the support that they need,” president Anita Huberman said in the statement. “Paid sick leave is about reducing transmission and getting on the other side of this pandemic.”
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