B.C.’s paid sick leave program draws mixed reaction from business community

Business organizations at odds over costs vs. benefits

An estimated 50% of British Columbians do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the province. | Credit: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

B.C.’s permanent sick leave program got the seal of approval from the Surrey Board of Trade at Wednesday’s unveiling.

Other business organizations aren’t nearly so enthusiastic over the initiative that will guarantee workers five days of paid sick leave each year beginning this coming January 1.

"Let’s be clear. While many businesses have been resilient through this pandemic, it doesn’t mean they are thriving,” Fiona Famulak, president and CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. 

“The added cost of the permanent paid sick leave program is on top of a number of cost increases that businesses have needed to shoulder in the last few years, that include the introduction of the employer health tax, rising property taxes and costs associated with implementing safety measures for the pandemic.”

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade estimates the program will cost businesses that don’t already offer paid sick leave between $506 million and $1.1 billion each year.

The province’s temporary program, launched in May and due to expire December 31, offers workers three days of paid sick leave, while employers are reimbursed up to a maximum of $200.

The province reduced its budget for reimbursements significantly during the last fiscal update, with Labour Minister Harry Bains indicating it was because fewer people than expected tapped the three-day paid sick leave program.

No reimbursements will be offered to businesses under the permanent program.

“The benefit of paid sick leave far exceeds the cost or modest cost that comes with paid sick leave,” Bains said, adding businesses will benefit from increased productivity and higher rates of retention.

Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, said employees face a stark option when feeling ill: “Go to work while sick to collect a vital paycheck, or stay home and receive no money.”

“Increasing paid sick leave just by days is an economic imperative. Your workforce is your most important asset,” she said at Wednesday’s announcement.

“Let's take care of them so that we can focus together on increasing the bottom line for businesses.”

The provincial government began stakeholder consultations earlier this year, ultimately developing three options to cover the minimum number of paid sick days for British Columbians: three, five or 10 days.

Bains said the consultation process found 98% of workers did not abuse the temporary program.

“With just one month until final implementation, it will be challenging for many small businesses, who have not budgeted for this cost, and are also dealing with the impacts of the floods, associated supply-chain challenges, labour shortages and inflationary pressures,” Bridgitte Anderson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said in a statement.

“The compounding issues impacting businesses in Greater Vancouver will increase costs and put upward pressure on prices. Many small businesses in sectors hit hard by the pandemic will likely feel the impact most.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Dias, president of the labour union Unifor, called the five-day program a “failure in leadership.”

"According to the Horgan government, 10 paid sick days is good enough for the federal sector but not good enough for the majority of B.C.'s most vulnerable workers," he said, referring to an August pledge from the federal Liberals to offer sick leave to workers in federally regulated industries such as telecom and airlines.

An estimated 50% of British Columbians do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the province.

The temporary program was launched in the spring as a measure to stem the tide against COVID-19 infections. 

“We know when someone is forced to go to work when they are ill, the workplace is at risk,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during Wednesday’s announcement.

“The ability to stay home and not lose your jobs or wages is really important.”