BC unveiled its paid sick leave program today. Rob Shaw suspects those disappointed today will be pleased later – and vice versa.
Premier John Horgan unveiled his government’s long-awaited paid sick leave program Tuesday, touting with much fanfare that it will “bridge the gap” between provincial and federal programs during the pandemic.
Then the premier spent the better part of 30 minutes dumping on those same federal programs, leaving the distinct impression that B.C.’s new initiative is pretty much a bridge to nowhere.
Workers without paid sick days from their employer will be eligible for up to three days, at full pay, if they are sick with COVID-19, awaiting test results, or self-isolating due to concerns about the virus.
The program ticks several major boxes: It requires employers to immediately pay out the sick days so that an employee’s pay cheque is not disrupted, and the province promised to reimburse employers so that costs are not downloaded onto the backs of businesses still struggling to survive public health restrictions.
But there’s also several important caveats: It only runs until Dec. 31, and the provincial reimbursement is capped at $200 a day (or a wage of $25 an hour).
The biggest issue was the selection of only three days paid leave – not nearly enough to cover someone sick with COVID-19, or self-isolating for 10 days.
But that wasn’t the point and isn’t B.C.’s goal, said Horgan.
“I am confident that the three days that we have in the bill will bridge workers to get access to other programs that are available in Canada,” he said.
Those programs include the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which has been panned by virtually everyone because it only pays out $500 per week (less than minimum wage) and takes weeks to apply and receive.
In fact, Ottawa’s refusal to improve this program in the federal budget last month was B.C.’s stated reason for going off and developing its own sick pay initiative.
Here’s just a few of the words Horgan used to describe the federal sick pay program on Tuesday: “Difficult to access for workers.”
“It has not met the test.”
Full of “shortcomings.”
“I can’t hide my disappointment at the lack of a robust effort by the federal government,” said the premier.
How odd then, to see B.C. launch a program that simply funnels people back into the federal program it readily describes as useless.
Horgan tried to square that circle several times during his press conference, suggesting there are other options available federally, such as Employment Insurance (which pays the same $500 weekly), long-term disability (which is an application nightmare), or Canada Recovery Benefit (which also pays $500 a week, in two-week chunks).
But inevitably he circled back to his deep dissatisfaction that Ottawa was sticking with a dysfunctional sick leave program that pays too little and takes too long to even do that.
“Would I have preferred a better outcome?” Horgan mused. “Absolutely. But I am doing the best with what we’ve got in the time available.”
Longtime NDP ally, the B.C. Federation of Labour, couldn’t hide its disappointment. President Laird Cronk said he was worried and concerned the three days were inadequate.
Meanwhile, the Surrey and Greater Vancouver boards of trade celebrated the announcement as pragmatic and reasonable.
So the NDP managed to tick off organized labour, while appeasing the business community – not what you would have expected from a New Democrat administration with a majority and 3.5 years left in its mandate.
Tuesday’s legislation also contained the early outline of a permanent sick pay program after the pandemic concludes, in 2022. But it’s hard to know what that might look like, because the legislation gives complete control to cabinet to craft the number of days and details of that initiative later this year.
On this larger, permanent, program, the B.C. Fed is much more optimistic, heralding what it says will be a historic step for the province into a minimum number of paid sick days for the almost one million employees who currently have none.
Undoubtedly, to make the role reversal complete, B.C. businesses will be more concerned the closer we get to 2022 that they might be saddled with the full cost of a permanent paid sick leave program.
So, while Tuesday’s program might be a bridge to nowhere, by the time we reach the end of the year we’ll probably be hearing warning bells that the province’s has taken a bridge too far. But, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
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