Paid sick leave top issue for workers, labour leader says, but Sask. government won't mandate it

The head of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says paid sick days mandated by the provincial government would slow the spread of COVID-19 and decrease the number of outbreaks in workplaces around Saskatchewan.

Minister of labour says workers' compensation mechanism enough

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says paid sick leave is the top issue for workers at this stage of the pandemic. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

The head of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says paying people to stay home if they are feeling unwell during the COVID-19 pandemic is the most pressing issue facing workers in the province.

"I think this is the No. 1 issue," federation president Lori Johb said.

"This would go a long way to stopping the spread of the [coronavirus] variants … in our province. Without question, this would be the way to see the quickest results" and decrease the number of outbreaks in workplaces, she said.

The current guidance from the provincial government is "stay home if you're sick — even if your symptoms are mild." 

But Johb said it is not always that simple.

Without paid leave, many people face the decision of making money they need to live, or staying home to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, she said.

"They can't afford to not go to work," Johb said. But paid leave "would also give people time to recover to make sure that they're going back to work [when they're] not ill."

At the end of February, the labour federations from all 10 provinces and three territories joined together to call for "seamless access to universal, permanent and adequate employer-paid sick days for all workers."

Johb said 15 paid days annually is sufficient.

Workplaces have led in terms of outbreak locations in Saskatchewan, it is a similar pattern across the country.

"The bulk of cases now that seem to be driving this pandemic are happening in workplaces where essential workers are unable to fully physically distance from one another," Dr. Camille Lemieux, medical lead for the University Health Network's COVID-19 assessment centre, said last week.

According to Saskatchewan government records, 27 of Regina's 47 outbreaks between March 25 and April 8 — 57 per cent — were declared in workplaces. 

That excludes restaurants and child-care centres, but includes grocery stores, contracting businesses, retail and others. 

In Saskatoon, 17 of the city's 22 declared outbreaks over the last two weeks — or 77 per cent — happened in workplaces.

'Unnecessary imposition': labour minister

Saskatchewan Minister of Labour Don Morgan said the provincial government is not entertaining mandating paid sick days at the moment.

"It's not done anywhere in Canada that I'm aware of. We think it would be an unnecessary imposition," Morgan said.

"Right now, we're not looking at it. We've done the jurisdictional scan on it. We know no one else is doing it."

Two provinces in Canada do mandate sick leave

In Quebec, a worker is entitled to two days per year, after six months of employment, to be paid by the employer. In Prince Edward Island, a worker is entitled to one employer-paid day per year, after five years of employment. 

Morgan said what is available to workers through the Workers' Compensation Board is enough.

"Generally speaking, if their claim is work-related — for somebody that picked it up at work and they test positive [for COVID-19], then they receiving compensation almost from the start. That appears to be working well in our province."

But Johb said covering workers who test positive is not good enough.

A man holds up a sign as a group advocating for provincially mandated paid sick days for workers participates in a rally outside Queens Park in Toronto on Jan. 13. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Giving workers the ability to stay home even for a couple of days without financial penalty would go a long way, she said.

"It's the workers that are just not feeling well and are not sure [if they have COVID-19]. Those are the ones … that I'm mostly concerned about," she said.

"If they had the flu or a head cold or something, that might keep them at home for a day or two. So I don't think in the long run it's going to cost any employer a great deal of money."

Johb said in many cases, employers will not replace a worker who is off sick for a couple of days, so their payroll would not be negatively impacted.

She said earlier in the pandemic, her organization reached out to the Workers' Compensation Board after hearing that peole were having difficulty accessing compensation after being exposed to the virus on the job.

Johb said the WCB was not denying claims, they were not seeing them come in. That was relayed to employers, she said.

"The policies … the WCB has said this does not affect the employer's bottom line and it does not affect their rate code."

President of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour Lori Johb says the province should be mandating paid sick leave for workers to help slow the spread of COVID-19. (Ethan Williams/CBC)

Johb said employers were not aware, and once the issue was raised the problem dissipated.

She said the same logic should be applied to the issue of paid sick leave.

"If the government would step up and say, 'We're going to help you with this.… We are going to be sure that workers have the ability to stay home if they are ill' … that would instantly have an impact on the numbers that we see in our province."

Morgan said those going to work should follow public health guidelines and best practices to avoid COVID-19.

"Wear PPE, get vaccinated, do the things that you would ordinarily to avoid getting in contact with it and do everything you can to stay safe," he said.

Workers also need to take any vaccine available to them, once they are eligible, he said.


Adam Hunter


Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him:

With files from Stephanie Hogan