Federal sickness benefit payouts don't match spike in COVID-19 cases
Government anticipated 4.9 million workers could need sick leave, fewer than 250,000 receive benefit so far
Even though COVID-19 cases have risen sharply across Canada, the number of people claiming the federal government's Canada recovery sickness benefit recently is lower than when it launched in late September.
The benefit was designed as a temporary income support program, making it easier for workers to stay home if they are sick or need to isolate because of potential exposure to COVID-19, or have an underlying health condition that puts them at greater risk if they catch the virus.
During the first two weeks it was offered — the weeks beginning Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 — 67,650 and 68,070 applications were approved, respectively.
Since those first two weeks, however, data updated regularly by the Canada Revenue Agency shows the number receiving the benefit down in the 30,000-40,000 range.
Although applications may still be coming in for the most recent period posted — Nov. 29-Dec.5 — so far only 28,570 have been approved for the benefit that week.
That runs counter to what might have been anticipated, as the number of positive test results continue to spike in hot spots across the country.
The CRSB pays $500 a week and can be claimed for up to two weeks, not necessarily consecutive, during the six months it's on offer.
The federal government worked with provinces and territories to put rules in place to make sure workers can claim this benefit without losing their jobs.
No doctor's note or other certification of actual illness, exposure or medical risk is required. This makes the application process more accessible, particularly for workers who may be understandably stressed, but it also makes it harder for the government to ensure only those who genuinely need to take leave receive the benefit and prevent fraudulent claims.
This paid sick leave program was one of three benefits that replaced the previous $500/week Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) when it expired earlier this fall.
The government told reporters in a technical briefing that an estimated 4.9 million workers might need this sick leave over a 26-week period that ends this spring.
It's not on track for that kind of uptake. Only 247,760 unique applicants have been approved, as of the most recent (Dec. 13) data.
Conclusions 'premature': Qualtrough
While the employment insurance system offers longer-term sickness benefits, not every worker qualifies for EI. Some employers already allow their employees paid sick days to help maintain a healthy workforce, but not every worker has that option, either.
This benefit was designed to be a safety net to encourage everyone to stay home when required.
It's not clear whether the initially higher uptake levels reflect possible abuse in the immediate aftermath of the CERB's expiration, or something else. It's also not clear why applications haven't risen with the recent spread of the virus.
CBC News asked Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough whether these numbers suggest there's a problem.
"I think it's too early to tell," the minister said. "We're looking at the data now. I'm personally very interested in the numbers around the sickness benefits, and knowing how many people are self-isolating."
Qualtrough also mentioned the government would like to better understand how the sickness benefit applications correlate to workers who may also be paid by their employer to stay home. She also wants to know whether some are choosing to claim sickness benefits under the EI system instead, because they anticipate needing to be away from work for more than the two weeks the CRSB covers.
"I think we're still a little premature to have any conclusions," she said. "There's going to be some really important analysis on the data on the sickness benefit in particular."
Qualtrough also said the benefit may be inadequate for front-line workers who are exposed and may therefore have to self-isolate more than once — and yet this benefit only covers two weeks.
"It's all very active and the conversations are literally happening every day, as they have been since March on all of this."
'People are still going to work sick'
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made paid sick leave a condition for his party continuing to support the Liberal government.
In an email earlier this fall, his spokesperson, Melanie Richer, suggested that the government wasn't doing enough to publicize this benefit.
"Our indication is that because it was in the news when it was first put in place, people knew about it and were staying home and applying for the benefit when they had symptoms," she said, pointing to the higher uptake in its earlier weeks. "Now that it's not advertised, people don't know about the benefit and are going to work sick."
Richer said there's "lots of evidence that people are still going to work sick because they feel they have no choice," and pointed to statements from public health officials that COVID-19 is still being spread at workplaces.
Richer said the CRSB should be even easier to access.
The NDP continues to call for permanent changes to provincial and federal labour laws to make paid sick leave permanent and ensure workers can't be fired for taking it.