British Columbia

B.C. to give workers 3 paid days off for absences related to COVID-19

B.C. is going to begin giving all workers in the province up to three days of paid sick leave if they have to miss work due to COVID-19.

New program includes part- and full-time workers, offers reimbursement for employers

A worker begins demolition at the site of the future Mount Pleasant SkyTrain station in Vancouver on Feb. 4. Under new legislation, full- and part-time workers in B.C. will have access to three paid days off if they're diagnosed with COVID-19 or if they need to self-isolate. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

B.C. is going to start giving all workers in the province up to three days of paid sick leave if they have to miss work due to COVID-19, the province has announced.

The new program includes part- and full-time workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, who need time off to self-isolate or who are waiting for a test result.

A statement said employers will be required to pay workers their full wages. For employers without an existing sick-leave program, the government has promised to reimburse up to $200 per day for each absent worker.

WorkSafeBC will begin administering the reimbursements on the government's behalf in June.

"This means workers won't lose pay when they feel unwell, hard-hit businesses will get the support they need and, together, we will stop the spread of this virus," said Labour Minister Harry Bains.

The program will be in effect from the date the legislation passes in the legislature until Dec. 31. By that time, Bains said, "the pandemic should be behind us."

In the new year, a new permanent paid sick leave program will take effect for those who need to miss work for injury or illness. The number of entitlement days is going to be decided through consultations over the next six months, the province said.

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains introduced the legislation for paid sick leave on Tuesday. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

3 days' leave 'better than none'

Health-care staff, workers advocates and public health experts have been calling for paid sick leave in B.C. since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said his cabinet agreed there was a need and started working on the legislation last year, but waited months to finish in order to see whether the federal government would improve the "inadequate" Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB).

The CRSB was designed to give four weeks of support to people who miss work due to COVID-19, but has so far fallen short. Notably, workers have to apply for the benefit retroactively, meaning those living paycheque-to-paycheque could wait days or weeks to be paid for sick days.

Less than $400 million has been paid out under the benefit — less than one-sixth of the $2.6 billion that Ottawa had set aside.

"That speaks to the inadequacy of the construction of that program," said Horgan.

Kim Strauss, the director of Simon Fraser University's labour studies program, said that what the province has come up with is "the most minimal program, perhaps, that the government thought they could get away with."

"It's not only late, but seems really unlikely to be able to address the issues that we know workers face when they have to make the decision about whether to stay home or not," she said.

Construction workers are pictured in Vancouver on March 4, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau responded to B.C.'s program Tuesday to say three days' leave is "better than none, but it is far from adequate to provide people with the time to recover from COVID-19."

Horgan disputed comparisons between B.C.'s new plan and the "incredibly lacking" program announced in Ontario last month. Both programs offer three paid days, but Horgan noted B.C.'s offers $100 more in overall compensation and will last three months longer than Ontario's.

Kim Novak, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers local 1518, said that while the plan is a "step in the right direction," it isn't enough. 

"Three days just isn't enough time," she said, adding that this is just a temporary solution.

"We really want to see this extended beyond the end of the year, but also more days. Workers are calling for paid sick time so that they don't have to go to work sick ... and to keep them, their families and their workplaces safer."

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted other jurisdictions such as Washington state and Oregon offer five employer-paid sick days for workers — even in non-pandemic times.

Novak and her union are pushing to have 10 paid sick days made available to members.

Horgan said B.C. could amend the legislation if three days are not enough.

"If it becomes inadequate by December ... we'll be making amendments," he said.

In B.C., workplaces can be ordered to close if three or more employees test positive for COVID-19.

At least 39 businesses were shut down over two weeks in early April after evidence of COVID-19 transmission in the workplace, the vast majority of which were located in the Lower Mainland.

Twenty-nine of those were in the Fraser Health region, including five restaurants, four gyms, kitchen furnishing stores, retail stores, a farm, manufacturing plants, a resort and a Service B.C. location.

Roughly 300 cases of COVID-19 detected in February and March were linked to workplace clusters in Vancouver Coastal Health, according to provincial data. Those cases represented approximately 3.6 per cent of the total 8,291 cases recorded in the health region during that time frame.

With files from The Canadian Press and On the Coast