British Columbia

Pressure mounts on B.C. to cover paid sick leave after federal budget falls short

One week after the federal and provincial governments tabled back-to-back budgets, workers in British Columbia are still no closer to universal paid sick days. 

The province had been banking on Ottawa to fund universal paid sick days, claiming it's a national issue

A federal and provincial budget later, British Columbians are still no closer to universal paid sick days. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

One week after the federal and provincial governments tabled back-to-back budgets, workers in British Columbia are still no closer to universal paid sick days. 

But calls are growing louder for B.C. to come up with its own plan, and the premier is hinting it might.

Ottawa presented its budget last Monday. The day before, when CBC News asked the B.C. government what it was most hoping to see from the federal budget, paid sick leave topped the province's wish list. 

The premier's office cited previous comments doubling as loose commitments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pinning the onus on him to follow through with a national approach. 

But the federal budget came out with zero dollars earmarked for a robust paid sick leave program. Twenty-four hours later, B.C. presented its own budget, equally silent on paid sick days. 

Nearly every day since, cabinet has been peppered with questions on if, when, and how B.C. will deliver a provincially-funded program. And nearly every answer has put it back on the federal government. 

"We had hoped that their budget, the day before our budget, would have done something to address those issues ... We were disappointed to see no progress," Premier John Horgan told reporters Tuesday. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan pictured in Surrey on August 29, 2019. Horgan has long lobbied Trudeau to deliver on paid sick leave. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"We've gone back to the shelf and taken the programs that we had been working on here in British Columbia, and we're trying to get those up to speed to fill the gaps at the federal level." 

Horgan, who led the initial charge in placing the issue at Ottawa's feet a year ago, said in December that he was prepared to "go it alone" to fund the cost of paid sick leave. Now, he says work is underway in B.C. to look at what could be done, adding the province will have more to say in the days ahead.

"I have not engaged with my colleagues, other premiers, at this point. I know that Premier Ford has made some suggestions that have not been well received — he has not talked to me about them." 

Horgan's comments came the same day the Trudeau government insisted it's up to Ontario to make businesses pay for sick leave. Ontario had offered to top up the federal paid sick leave program to $1,000 a week for its residents instead of creating its own program, but that proposal was rejected by Ottawa. 

"Provinces need to look at the way to deliver sick leave directly through employers, which the federal government can't do," Trudeau told reporters Tuesday.

'Woefully inadequate'

Labour groups aren't hung up on which level of government gets is done; they just want to see it happen, and quickly. 

"Workers right now today are making the untenable decision to go to work because they're worried about paying the rent or the overdue Visa bill," said B.C. Federation of Labour President Laird Cronk in an interview Tuesday. "We need to take that economic barrier off the table."

He was doubly disappointed that neither the federal nor provincial government included a new plan in their respective budgets last week — and said if Ottawa won't come through, then B.C. must.

"We've said to the B.C. government, 'Now that we know for sure the federal government has a woefully inadequate national plan, the province needs to step in and fill those gaps to make sure we have true universal sick pay in British Columbia."

Pressure is mounting on the B.C. government to deliver its own provincial program for paid sick leave, with labour groups insisting it's urgent. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Victoria business owner Michelle Byrne said she'd be willing to deal with additional paperwork if the provincial government could help cover the costs of offering paid sick leave. 

"I would rather have my staff be healthy and safe and getting a COVID test if they need it," she said. 

"In general, they are much more apt to phone in sick than before because now if you have a little sniffle, I don't want you here."

In the fall, the federal government announced workers could qualify through an application process to receive $450 per week (after taxes) in sick pay for a maximum of four weeks through the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. Some provinces, including B.C, have called it insufficient. 

"You have to qualify for it, you don't get paid right up front, you have to wait for the money to show up, if you're not off more than half the week you don't qualify that week, it's less than minimum wage — so that program needs to be fixed or filled," said Cronk. 

He said he's encouraged to hear a more hopeful tone from Premier Horgan, confident B.C. is going to look at implementing a provincewide program in the near future. 

"We know we need this program now, urgently," he said. "It's not too late. We still need to do this and to make sure we have safe workplaces for the workers and to keep the businesses going."


Provincial Affairs Reporter covering the B.C. Legislature. Anything political:

With files from On the Island