Canada’s lack of an adequate permanent short-term leave program for employees poses a significant threat to the country’s economy and social fabric.
That is among the top findings of an Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) report released earlier this month, which called Canada’s regulations on protected leaves of under 15 days – either due to illness or for taking care of someone who is ill – woefully inadequate prior to introducing emergency measures during the pandemic.
With emergency programs such as the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit slated to end this month, the researchers who penned the IRPP report, York University professors Eric Tucker and Leah Vosko, said it is critical for government to step in now and institute a more permanent regime that protects workers in these situations.
“The weakness in the Canadian system became visible very quickly as soon as the pandemic hit,” Tucker said, “and we were aware of the problem – but I don’t think we had a national view to understand how undeveloped policy was.
“When you introduce an international perspective, you can see that Canada is truly a laggard. When you look at other countries, especially those in Europe, almost everyone there provides at minimum 10 sick-leave days.”
According to the report, prior to emergency COVID-era programs such as the CRB, only two provinces (Prince Edward Island and Quebec) beyond federal jurisdiction require employers to provide any sort of paid job-protected leave, and the number of days required falls below three days in both cases. Meanwhile, even protected unpaid leaves are limited; only Quebec requires such leaves of more than two weeks.
In B.C., employers must provide three days of protected unpaid leave for workers.
Compounding the problem, the report noted, is that while the regulation of protected short-term leave is a provincial jurisdiction, financial support programs for paying workers on short-term leave falls to federal systems like employment insurance (EI). Prior to the pandemic, the lack of co-ordination and coverage for workers either staying home to avoid infecting others or to take care of ill loved ones means that the 58% of Canadians (according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 General Social Survey) who are without employer-paid leave have few options.
“I think the policies you’ve seen during the pandemic are an admission of the system’s flaws,” Vosko said. “And we are very concerned that these emergency measures will be phased out, with Canada once again going back to a system where there are a lot of gaps. That concern is very prominent, especially since the timing of the study coincides with the time that [emergency programs] are sunsetting.”
Vosko and Tucker agreed that a system used by 29 countries – including a large number in Europe, where a two-stage regime requires employers to pay for leave during a short initial period before social insurance takes over – is much more comprehensive than what Canadians will face once the CRB sunsets. About 85% of these countries have paid sick leaves of 26 weeks or more. And even with the CRB, the report contends that coverage has been less than optimal. Once short-term leave reverts to the domain of EI, Vosko said the eligibility for financial support among workers needing short-term leave varies dramatically from demographic to demographic, and two groups – women and workers in more precarious job positions – are disproportionately hurt by the lack of a program that protects their right for taking a leave.
“The report highlights our position that any new regime needs to look at some fundamental principles,” Vosko said, noting the report’s focus on universality and sufficiency, as well as fairness, flexibility and efficiency. “Having a short-term leave policy based on these principles is very important. People shouldn’t need to work sick to keep their jobs.”
Tucker said that while the report is aimed at policy-makers, it is important for employers to understand the current situation. He noted that most workplace productivity studies have found no negative impact from allowing more short-term leave, while the opposite has significant economic risks.
“The overwhelming result is that these studies have found no higher levels of unemployment and no measurable effect on reducing productivity,” Tucker said. “I suspect that’s because, when people work sick, they are not very productive. The change when compared to people simply taking off work is essentially a wash.”
“What are the resulting costs if workers can’t take time off?” she asked. “There are major costs to both society and the economy. It’s the cost of presenteeism: the culture of having to show you are at work despite the fact you shouldn’t be there. People electing to go to work sick, as we can see these days, can have serious health consequences at the workplace. You will see lower productivity and higher rates of burnout, and that’s not accounting for the unmet care needs of children or loved ones of these workers – which could lead to an overall increase in the cost of care.”
The full report is at irpp.org/research-studies/designing-paid-and-protected-employment-leaves-for-short-term-sickness-and-caregiving. •