Premiers come out in support of a federal paid sick leave program

Three premiers have endorsed a national sick leave program proposed this week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "crucial for the safe restart of our economy."

B.C. Premier John Horgan, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, and Yukon Premier Sandy Silver issued a statement on Tuesday.

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"We look forward to advancing this initiative," said the statement. "Paid sick leave is crucial for the safe restart of our economy."

The prime minister said on Monday he would seek input from premiers on a 10-day paid sick leave program during the pandemic.

Yukon has already implemented a paid sick leave program for employers.

"A national program would ensure people can stay home from work when they are sick without fear of not being able to pay their bills. It will also give the public confidence that the businesses and workplaces they visit are safe," said the statement from the premiers. "We will continue to work with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and other provinces and territories, to move forward and ensure all Canadians have the protection they need during this pandemic."

Horgan has been advocating for a national sick-leave program and had said the province would implement its own program if Ottawa did not take the lead on the issue.

On Monday, Trudeau noted that the B.C. premier had brought up the issue of paid sick leave during a call of the country's first ministers. Horgan "pointed out that when the fall comes and flu season starts up, we don't want people who develop a sniffle to suddenly worry they shouldn't go into work but can't afford to not go into work," Trudeau said.

The prime minister said no one should have to choose between taking a day off work due to illness or being able to pay their bills, pay rent or buy groceries.

“That is why the government will continue discussions with the provinces, without delay, on ensuring that as we enter the recovery phase of the pandemic, every worker in Canada who needs it has access to 10 days of paid sick leave a year,” Trudeau said. “And we will also consider other mechanisms for the longer term to support workers with sick leave.”

Trudeau said discussions still have to take place with the provinces about how the program will work.

“We recognize we are in a situation of crisis, where companies and enterprises don’t have much flexibility on the financial level, so we expect during the crisis, it will be governments that will have to take a large part of the weight,” he said.

The federal NDP demanded two weeks of paid sick leave for all workers in exchange for supporting the federal government’s plan to extend the suspension of the House of Commons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been clear from the beginning that the government should make sure every worker has access to paid sick leave,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement.

Singh said the party will continue to push the government to ensure it delivers on the commitment and works with provinces to make sick leave for workers permanent.

Horgan has been advocating for the federal government to fund sick days through the Employment Insurance program as part of a national health emergency.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, during a COVID-19 briefing on Monday, said workers staying home when sick is one of the key ways to control the spread of COVID-19.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it recognizes special measures such as paid sick time are needed to respond to the pandemic, but “serious concerns” need to be ironed out prior to the introduction of any permanent sick-time provisions. “Small business owners just cannot be expected to take on any additional costs at this time,” said federation president Dan Kelly in a statement.

Small-business owners are already bracing for a “significant increase” in Employment Insurance premiums to cover the cost of higher levels of unemployment expected to continue after federal benefits related to the pandemic are discontinued, the federation said.

Higher EI premiums, combined with plans for years of Canadian Pension Plan premium increases, mean rising payroll taxes at a time of high unemployment, it said.

The federation is urging the federal and provincial governments to refrain from making COVID-19-related response measures permanent until everything returns to “normal times” and a debate can be held on “intended and unintended consequences.”

“Given the provincial role in setting employment standards rules for most small firms, special care is needed to ensure that the federal government does not create another confusing policy environment as we are experiencing with the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program,” said Kelly.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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