With no help from feds, premier says B.C. working on its own sick-leave program

Premier John Horgan says B.C. is working on bringing forward its own provincial sick leave program to “fill in the gaps” left by the federal government.

Horgan did not provide details on what a made-in-B.C. program would look like, but he reiterated his disappointment that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not expand the current sick leave program in last week’s federal budget.

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“The federal government has done what they believe is enough and we’ll be left to fill the gaps,” Horgan said during an unrelated news conference Tuesday.

“We asked them to fix it, they haven’t, and now we’re stepping up,” he said. “I don’t want to sound overly whiny about this but … we didn’t get the program we needed at the time we needed it. [The federal government has] done a lot of great things in the last 14 months, but this isn’t one of them.”

The province was working on a provincial sick-leave program last summer and “we’ve taken those [plans] off the shelf,” Horgan said.

“We’re looking at how to do it in a seamless way without putting more burden on businesses at a time when businesses can least afford it.”

Asked why it has taken so long, Horgan said the province wants to ensure the program is delivered in a way that protects workers and doesn’t saddle businesses with additional costs.

“It’s not the resources that’s the issue, it’s the delivery of the program,” he said. Horgan said he will work with WorkSafe B.C. and Finance Minister Selina Robinson to develop the ­program.

The current federal program, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, has been criticized by labour groups who say the $500-a-week benefit — $450 after taxes — for anyone sick with COVID-19 is inadequate.

B.C. Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone said the province should have created a sick-leave program a year ago. He said the government could quickly create a program using the $3-billion contingency fund in the budget.

“When you consider that there are thousands of predominantly front-line workers in low-wage jobs who have already put themselves at risk in order to provide the services and products that the rest of us count on, to say to those people that they’re going to have to wait even more than the year they’ve already waited, it’s just simply irresponsible,” Stone said.

Rob Gillezeau, an economist with University of Victoria, said the most efficient sick-leave program would be one that requires employers to automatically pay workers when they are sick and then the employer is compensated by the government.

If the worker is forced to rely on the government to fill in their lost wages, the lag in getting the money might create a disincentive to stay home while sick, Gillezeau said.

“Having an employer mandate makes it seamless,” he said. “You don’t go in and you still get compensated.”

Yukon created a paid sick-leave program in March that pays a rebate to employers that covers a maximum of 10 days of wages per employee.

Horgan said he doesn’t think Ontario’s proposal to double the $500 federal sick leave benefit with its own funding is the most effective way to deliver money to workers.

However, Trudeau stressed that paid sick leave should be delivered directly through employers. He said Ontario should work through provincially regulated businesses to implement a sick-leave program, as his government did with federally regulated workplaces.

Horgan hopes B.C. can create a program that extends beyond the pandemic.

“So we’re looking at not just [during] the pandemic but what can we do to protect workers and businesses,” he said. “We’re going to try and find a collaborative way to do that.”

Greg D’Avignon, CEO of the Business Council of B.C., is supportive of a paid-sick-leave program but said the cost should not fall to businesses, many of which are closed or operating at limited capacity to help curb transmission.

“There is no disagreement by anyone in labour, in business or in government that if you have COVID symptoms, you should not come to work because you’re endangering fellow employees, business owners customers and the business itself,” D’Avignon said.

“Employers are already paying significant sums of money into health care, into WorkSafe and into unemployment insurance. So we’re doing more than our fair share despite controls and constraints of this public health crisis.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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