OTTAWA — All Canadians need access to two weeks of sick-leave benefits as provinces start moving to reopen their economies while fighting COVID-19, and the federal government should pay for it, the federal New Democrats say.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday that workers without sick leave who are put back on the job during the pandemic will be left to decide between protecting others from infection and paying their bills.
"We need paid sick leave, there is no question about it. It should no longer be an option," Singh said Wednesday.
Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has been reminding people almost daily to stay home when they're sick, even with mild symptoms, or else risk further transmission of COVID-19.
The government should be paying people to do just that, Singh said, and suggested the cost could be covered by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or the employment insurance system.
The NDP pitched the idea to the Liberals but they declined to include it in a bill presented to the House of Commons Wednesday, in the weekly opportunity to pass legislation. Singh tried to put the idea forward as a motion himself, calling on the Liberal government to work on paid sick leave with the provinces, but didn't get the unanimous vote needed to present it on short notice.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the federal government is in talks with the provinces about how they can deal with the issue.
"We are very aware that a key component to our return to work safely, and positioning businesses and workers to feel confident they can go back to work, will be making it easier to stay home if you're feeling sick," Qualtrough said at a briefing Wednesday.
"We're going to look to see how we can continue to support Canadians moving forward and in what way we can best do that."
In the meantime, people who have received no income for 14 days while sick with COVID-19 or while under quarantine qualify for CERB payments of up to $500 a week.
According to a briefing note by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, only 38 per cent of illness or disability leave was paid by employers in Canada in 2019. Low-income workers, who have often been on the front lines of the pandemic, are more likely to be paid only if they work, creating an obvious incentive to go to work sick.
Just one in five workers making $15 an hour or less is able to take paid leave for more than week, according to the briefing note.
Singh said that should change, and the fix should not be temporary.
"We want to see this as a permanent change, knowing that what we're faced with as a crisis has changed the reality for our country, for the world," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press