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License to (be) ill

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Rob Shaw: The NDP have “chosen to quietly coast around the issue, unwilling or unable to find the political will to stand up for the kind of lower-income workers the party has long purported to represent.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford gave a tearful apology Thursday for making some wrong decisions on COVID-19, including his stubborn refusal to develop a provincial sick pay program during the pandemic until Ottawa acts first.

But it’s a much different tone and strategy in B.C., where a defiant Finance Minister Selina Robinson continues to insist the province won’t act on sick pay until the federal government takes the lead.

It’s a jarring contrast, not the least of which is because we now have a Progressive Conservative government in Ontario recognizing the social imperative to pay sick workers to prevent the spread of the virus, while a New Democratic government in B.C. prefers to play fiscal hardball with the feds over who foots the bill.

Ford broke down when describing families unable to hold hands with dying relatives, during a press conference he gave while working in self-isolation at his late mother’s house due to a staff member contracting the virus.

“I assure you that it is not lost on me that, unlike many people, I’m able to isolate and continue working,” he said.

“For too many people right now, that’s not the case. And during these unprecedented times, regardless of where you work or what you do, if you’re forced to go into isolation or quarantine, your job should be safe… you also need to know you won’t lose your income.”

At around the same time, Robinson was on CBC Radio in Kelowna arguing B.C. can’t and won’t act alone.

“Right now we think the best place to go is to continue to engage with the federal government,” she said.

In Ontario, Ford has been sharply criticized for ordering too strict a lockdown, in the wrong areas, while ignoring his scientific advisors and doing nothing to help sick workers afford to stay at home in self-isolation.

In B.C.. traditional NDP allies like the B.C. Federation of Labour continue to hammer the John Hogan administration for delivering a budget Tuesday that failed to support the 50 per cent of workers in B.C. who don’t have any paid sick leave.

The problem is simple: Public health officials mandate that people stay home if they develop any symptoms, so they don’t spread COVID-19 to their co-workers or customers. But if a person’s job requires them to be physically present – say, stocking grocery store shelves or staffing a gas station terminal – then they don’t get paid when they stay home sick. And if they don’t get paid, they starve.

So, some people begin to lie about, or ignore, their symptoms because they can’t afford the financial hit, and then COVID-19 starts spreading at a rapid rate through workplaces.

When you follow that logic through, a paid sick leave program is a critical part of controlling the spread of the virus and lessening other pandemic restrictions.

B.C.’s lack of action is doubly disappointing for workers’ rights and social justice advocates who saw Horgan take a strong stand on sick pay last year, publicly pushing the issue onto the prime minister’s agenda through a series of meetings with premiers.

Ottawa did create the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit last September, but it is such a weak and underfunded program as to be functionally useless to the problem at hand. It only offers a sick person $500 per week – less than minimum wage – and requires an application process that leaves people waiting for weeks to recover that meagre amount while they struggle without income to pay for housing and groceries.

A true sick leave plan pays an employee immediately, so that their weekly or monthly cheques remain the same, without an arduous application process.

B.C. knew from the moment Ottawa announced the benefit that it wasn’t enough. But it has chosen to quietly coast around the issue, unwilling or unable to find the political will to stand up for the kind of lower-income workers that the party has long purported to represent.

Horgan has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to do anything to add costs onto the backs of employers at a time when businesses are struggling to survive. It’s a laudable sentiment. The province could bankrupt many small- and medium-sized business operators by ordering them to pay full wages to sick employees during the pandemic.

That leaves the B.C. government on the hook to fund whatever sick pay program it comes up with.

Money shouldn’t be an object, with a $9.7 billion deficit, potentially a further decade of deficit spending and a government plan that will double the provincial debt within four years. Surely, somewhere in that enormous fiscal plan is enough money to help sick workers.

What’s left is to craft a program that everyone can agree upon. Fortunately, there’s a path for that too.

The BCFed has called for a program in which employers immediately pay for a worker’s sick pay and then are refunded by the government during the crisis.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it would support a temporary program in which the government reimburses employers who pay up front. But it would like that paired with funding for rapid tests so that a workplace shut down due to sick staff can repeatedly test itself and re-open quickly once it is safe.

Clearly, there’s room to work on a deal there between workers, employers and the government.

The only thing lacking, is the political will from the B.C. government.

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.

rob@robshawnews.com
twitter.com/robshaw_bc

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