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Opinion | Those COVID-19 travel scandals could pay off for people without paid sick leave


Could something positive actually come from the jet-setting politicians who spent Christmas on a beach while telling the rest of us to stay home?

Perhaps.

The scandal has put access to paid sick leave in the spotlight because of a loophole in federal benefits that allowed travellers returning from afar to claim compensation during their mandatory quarantine — at least in theory.

The loophole, of course, is outrageous, even if there’s no evidence it was widely exploited. Now federal legislators have made a priority of changing the rules. As soon as the House comes back in session on Jan. 25, revising the legislation will be at the top of their to-do list.

That’s all well and good, but it also gives federal politicians an opportunity to quickly fix some of the other problems with paid sick days that are far less theoretical than the egregious loophole.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit was supposed to be the answer for a prickly problem during the pandemic: enabling low-income workers to stay home when they were dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, without fear of losing pay or their jobs.

The benefit, put in place this fall, means the federal government foots the bill for 10 days of paid sick leave for anyone who needs it — an idea pushed by the B.C. government, championed by the federal NDP and eventually approved across party lines in the House of Commons this fall.

The problem is that there’s not nearly as much take-up of the benefit as hoped, or as the rising caseload of COVID-19 would suggest is necessary.

The federal government figured that the benefit would cost about $2.6 billion between this September and the end of March 2021. But so far, Ottawa has spent just a tenth of that amount. As of Jan. 9, a total of 317,000 people had applied for it. The federal government has paid out $270.69 million so far.

In the last week of December, fewer than 20,000 people applied — the lowest to date — even as the coronavirus numbers were climbing rapidly.

But at the same time, workers, activists and politicians across Ontario have been clamouring loudly for the provincial government to institute paid sick leave. Sick days became a lightning rod this week, as new modelling shows community spread on the rise and as Premier Doug Ford institutes a firmer lockdown across the province, telling all but essential workers to stay home if they can.

Unions, provincial opposition parties, city councillors and public health authorities alike have argued that the lockdown won’t work unless the province implements 10 days of paid sick leave for workers.

To which the premier responded by pointing to the existing Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

In a sense, they are all right — paid sick leave is indeed necessary to encourage workers to stay home when they need a COVID-19 test or have been exposed or just aren’t feeling well. The Toronto Board of Health found that just 10 per cent of low-wage and front-line workers have access to paid sick days.

And yes, while provincial legislation forcing employers to provide such benefits could help, the federal benefit is supposed to take care of it for the time being.

But the federal benefit needs some repairing before it can be effective. And now, Parliament has the perfect opportunity because the related legislation will be opened up for changes in less than two weeks’ time.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has made the benefit a priority since the beginning of the pandemic, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday proposing concrete improvements.

“We implore you to take advantage of this opportunity to improve the shortcomings of the program so that every worker has the support they need to comply with public health guidelines,” he writes.

The benefit needs to be more generous so that it fully replaces lost wages of workers who should be staying home, the NDP argues. Right now, it’s $500 a week and that’s less than some low-income workers make.

It should also be redesigned so that workers can apply for just a day or two at a time, the NDP says. For now, it comes in one-week chunks and maxes out after two weeks, providing a disincentive for workers to take a couple of days here or there to wait for a COVID-19 test result or recover at home from a cold.

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The money needs to come faster, and workers need to have a legislated guarantee that if they take the leave, they’ll get their jobs back when they recover, the letter urges.

The suggestions make a lot of sense, but the NDP doesn’t have the bargaining power around this legislation like they did in the fall, when the Liberals needed their support to get the package through Parliament. But the Liberals say they’re looking at ways to make the benefit more efficient. They’re not saying No, although they do suggest that the bureaucratic technology can’t handle micropayments and nuance.

But in the meantime, there’s an immediate fix that doesn’t require legislation or political co-operation: publicity. The travel scandal has helped with that, strangely, and it’s time for the federal government to seize the moment, boost its advertising and let low-income workers know it’s OK to stay home if they’re sick.





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