Nova Scotia

Premier cool to proposals around paid sick leave for all workers

The federal New Democrats might have been able to convince the Liberal government in Ottawa to consider bringing in paid sick days for all workers, but it appears it will be a more difficult sell with the Liberal government in Nova Scotia.

Federal NDP plan could lead to 10 paid sick days, but needs provincial help

Premier Stephen McNeil says he thinks the issue of paid sick leave is best left for the bargaining table, however some workers without benefits are not members of unions. (CBC)

The federal New Democrats might have been able to convince the Liberal government in Ottawa to consider bringing in paid sick days for all workers, but it appears it will be a more difficult sell with the Liberal government in Nova Scotia.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently agreed to a proposition from federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that would see paid sick leave for workers rolled out in two phases.

The first stage would be short-term support as the economy reopens and would be funded entirely by the federal government. The second, a longer-term stage, would see Ottawa work with the provinces and employers on finding a way to ensure all workers have access to 10 paid sick days each year.

Although some provinces, such as British Columbia, have signalled support for the idea, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil offered little enthusiasm for it during Wednesday's COVID-19 press briefing.

A collective bargaining issue

McNeil dismissed the idea as something that should be discussed during collective bargaining, a position that ignores the fact that most low-wage earners are not members of a union.

The premier said he thinks the federal government could, through its employment insurance program, pay people if they need to take time off work to be tested for COVID-19 and await test results, and also if they subsequently need to quarantine.

"That would be a good first step as both private and public entities negotiated the sick benefit throughout the collective bargaining process," he said.

McNeil did not address the longer-term aspect of the proposal, which Trudeau accepted in order to get the support of the NDP so he could extend the suspension of Parliament during the pandemic.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says a lack of sick benefits for all workers means some people must choose between staying home to get better or missing a paycheque. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

In an interview Thursday, Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill said McNeil's response doesn't bode well for how talks between this province and Ottawa will go when the prime minister turns his attention to a potential long-term plan. Trudeau was scheduled to have a conference call with premiers Thursday evening with the topic of paid sick days expected to be part of the discussion.

Burrill said McNeil's response was "insincere and unhelpful." The point is to amend and improve the Labour Standards Code, and that doesn't just apply to people who are members of a union, he said.

Still, the premier's comments didn't exactly come as a surprise to Burrill.

Earlier this year, the Nova Scotia NDP proposed a bill that would have allowed all workers, whether they're in a union or not, to be able to accrue up to six paid sick days per year, an idea the Liberals rejected during the spring sitting at Province House.

But whether it's six days or 10, Burrill said governments must recognize how the public health landscape has a world that includes COVID-19, and in one that some day might not.

"The question of paid sick days indicates the extent to which there are really two worlds of work in Canada," he said.

Labour minister needs more details

There are people who stay home from work when they feel unwell or have a personal emergency, yet they are still paid because they have sick benefits, said Burrill.

There are others, however, who don't have benefits, for whom the decision of whether to go to work while sick is made on the basis of whether they can afford to miss a shift, he said.

Burrill sees the plan from his federal counterpart as a necessary equalizer.

"If we had paid sick leave, people can make that decision just on the merits of how, in fact, they're feeling. And from a public health point of view, that makes way more sense."

In an interview Thursday, Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis was more nuanced about the issue than McNeil.

He agreed that in the short-term during the pandemic, it makes sense for Ottawa to cover sick days for people without benefits using the employment insurance system. However, Kousoulis said he and the premier discussed whether the province could potentially partner on such an initiative as it relates to the pandemic.

Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis said there could be a path to the province partnering with Ottawa on short-term help, but anything beyond the pandemic would need more study. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The two did not discuss what a longer-term plan could mean and Kousoulis said he's not familiar with all the details of the federal NDP proposal.

Still, the minister said the idea would need further examination to ensure small businesses aren't faced with additional financial burdens and provinces would also need time to analyze their own finances on the other side of the pandemic.

"I'd have to dig into it quite a bit more and really flesh it out."