Over the past months there has been a lot of discussion going on about the importance of having access to paid sick days. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the importance of this, as we’ve seen a growing number of cases of not only workplace transmission of the disease, but that then being brought home and infecting (and killing) family members at home. All of this happening because certain people didn’t stay home when they were sick and infected others in the process.
Many of those people who were feeling ill, because of a lack of paid sick days, were forced with an impossible choice; stay home unpaid and get better, or go to work ill and put others at risk, just to ensure that they could pay to keep a roof over their heads. No one should have to make such an awful decision, especially when the solution to avoid such a circumstance is so simple and straightforward; give paid sick days.
The debate around this topic has been frustrating as can be, mostly because time and again all the public health experts keep coming back to pointing to this measure as an important tool to fight COVID. In Ontario, the Ford Conservatives fought tooth and nail against doing this for ideological reasons for months before finally giving in this week and giving a whole three days of paid sick leave. That amount has been called “inadequate”, especially for a disease that has a two-week incubation period. Ford and his team, like they always seem to do, called it “the best sick leave program in North America”, which is demonstrably false when you consider that Yukon gives 10 days paid sick leave. Yep folks, Yukon’s program is more than three times better than the best plan in North America. They’re free to borrow that line for their own talking points.
The other problem with Ontario’s sick leave program, and the Federal version that has already been seen as inadequate in its own right, is that it leaves out a growing number of workers in our society. Gig workers, independent contractors, freelancers, people who basically work for themselves, don’t have formal employers and therefore can’t get paid by them and they don’t pay into Employment Insurance and can’t get help from there either. This is a glaring problem that still needs to be fixed, and is especially true when it comes to Ottawa’s program.
When the Feds were approached about helping with Ontario’s program, the Liberal government basically told Ontario to get their own house in order and said their program is doing great. It was a disappointing example of political spin on their part that ignores a real big problem. And if you want maybe the best example of the problem with the current Federal sick leave program, politicians in Ottawa need to look no further than the voices in their ears every day. And yeah folks, this is a disturbing example:
Yeah folks, that’s right. As the Canadian Press points out today, the professional language interpreters that the House of Commons seriously cannot function without don’t get any sick leave because they are not “employees” of the House of Commons. They are freelancers, every single one of them. That was done years ago to try to help the Commons save a few bucks during the times when the House wasn’t sitting. So they don’t get normal paid sick days given by employers to employees because they aren’t “employees”. Also under the existing rules in Ontario, they won’t get access to the new three days paid sick leave because of their freelancer status, and they can’t get access to the Federal plan because they are independent contractors who don’t pay into EI. In effect, they are left completely exposed and without help. And if you think that these workers don’t need sick days, we saw just weeks into the COVID crisis just how they could have used those sick days:
Yep folks, it’s true. When the House of Commons went virtual so that MPs and House staff could be safe, there was a noted rise in injuries for language interpreters. As the Canadian Press noted in May 2020, those injuries included “acute acoustic shock, tinnitus, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, mental fog and inability to concentrate.” If you’d spent any time watching the virtual House or the virtual committee meetings, you can see how one would gain such injuries when dealing with the extra noises, feedback and other issues that have come with this set up.
Those injuries are serious for your ability to work when the health of your hearing is paramount to your work and livelihood. So you’d think that it would make sense to have given sick days to those employees, who are bending over backwards and putting their hearing health and professional life at risk to accommodate Parliamentarians so they can stay safe. Yet here we are, almost a year later and nothing. Of course, if you don’t have sick days to take care of a workplace injury, you don’t have sick days to deal with COVID itself.
If you’re the governing Liberals in Ottawa, pointing fingers of judgement at the provinces for not having done enough on sick days, it’s more than hypocritical to leave those federal employees they depend on so heavily exposed and without sick days. This not only exposes the big holes in Ottawa’s sick leave program through EI, but it’s also something that they know is lacking and they aren’t moving to fix it. It’s completely within their hands to improve upon and fix these gaps, yet the Liberals are choosing to leave them without coverage. These interpreters are right to be upset, and despite that understandable anger, they have kept showing up for work as the professionals that they are.
If these COVID times have taught us anything, it surely must be that more than one thing can be true. Yes, Ontario has dropped the ball on sick days and left people exposed for no good reason. And yes, the Federal governments sick leave program is inadequate, has major holes and has even left some of Parliaments most important skilled employees without paid sick days. It’s high time that Ottawa gets on with it and fixes this problem now. The Parliament of Canada literally cannot operate without functioning interpretation, and the fact that those interpreters continue to be exposed to this risk because Ottawa refused to cover them with paid sick days in any way, shape or form, is inexcusable. It’s completely within the power of the Liberals in Ottawa to fix this, and they owe it to those interpreters to do it now. They have no one else to blame but themselves for that, and the longer they ignore this crying need, the more of that blame they will continue to own.