Third wave of COVID-19 reignites debate over paid sick days in Canada

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TORONTO — The third wave of COVID-19 cases in Canada has reignited debate over sick days, with some calling on provinces to mandate paid sick leave while others say the move could cripple businesses already struggling for survival.

The issue came to a head Wednesday during a press conference with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who directed workers to a little-known federal program that provides income support when workers are sick or need to self-isolate due to the virus.

Critics say the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit has had poor uptake and is more akin to the government’s employment insurance program than paid sick days.

Randy Robinson, Ontario director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says even workers who know about the program and meet the criteria face delays getting paid and usually take a pay cut — obstacles that may push people to go into work even when they’re not feeling well rather than apply for the benefit.

Yet others say the federal program provides compensation to workers who need time off during the pandemic — including those at small businesses that can’t afford to offer sick days.

Dan Kelly, president and chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says rather than saddle struggling businesses with additional costs, the gaps and flaws in the federal program should be addressed.

“There is a federal system of benefits available to that worker that employers are paying into,” Kelly said. “Let’s work to fix the federal program to make it faster and more complete.”

Many small businesses that don’t offer paid sick time are in retail, hospitality and the service sector — industries  are facing “an existential crisis,” Kelly said.

“Their incomes have been ground down to zero,” he said. “Now is not the time to throw a nickel of additional costs on an employer community that is basically fighting for its very survival.

“Any additional cost will absolutely push more small businesses into bankruptcy.”

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