Employers lobby against paid sick leave

By Shannon Waters September 24, 2021

Corporate pressure has been mounting since B.C. moved to implement a three-day temporary sick pay program and announced its intention to bring in a permanent one next year.

Since March 1, seven organizations filed 18 reports with BC’s Registrar of Lobbyists after meeting with cabinet ministers and high-level staff on the issue of paid sick leave. Only two are organizations representing workers — the Vancouver and District Labour Council and Worker Solidarity Network.

The Business Council of BC has logged seven meetings with deputy labour minister Trevor Hughes since March 1 — plus face time with the labour and jobs ministers, Premier John Horgan and the premier’s chief of staff, Geoff Meggs. “Paid sick leave” is one of the items listed for each meeting, among other labour-related issues.

But while “a genuine nervousness from some small businesses” may be warranted, according to Alex Hemingway, a senior economist and public finance policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, he says concerns about paid sick leave costs overburdening businesses are mostly unfounded.

“That’s not really borne out by the evidence when you look at what’s happened [in the United States],” Hemingway told BC Today. “A lot of the U.S. cities and states have done this in the past 10 to 12 years. We can see some of the research that’s resulted from the introduction of those policies, and the vast majority of employers are reporting little or no impact on their costs.”

“The fear is conflicting with the reality that we can expect,” he added.

That has not stopped “an organized effort by the big corporate lobbying groups” from pressuring governments to keep their interests in mind when considering sick pay programs.

The Retail Council of Canada has lobbied a bevy of high-level public servants — including the labour and jobs ministers and both of the ministers’ deputies, plus the premier and the deputy minister to the premier — since March. The council’s focus was “urging government” to fully reimburse employers for all leave claimed by workers under the temporary program and “to create a similar reimbursement program for 2022 and beyond to ensure that businesses that have been badly damaged by the pandemic have an opportunity to recover and thrive.”

The BC Chamber of Commerce weighed in with “suggested parameters for paid sick leave,” including that paid leave provisions have a “temporary application for the length of the pandemic, [be] government-funded [and] easy to administer for business.”

The Electrical Contractors Association of BC lobbied to “request that any proposed provincial actions on sick leave be temporary, funded by the provincial government from general revenues, and workable for business.”

The Burnaby Board of Trade and some employers have also lobbied against the three hours of employer-paid leave for employees to get their Covid vaccinations.

To date, 2,500 employers in the province have been reimbursed for employees taking sick leave under the temporary program to the tune of $2.3 million, according to the Ministry of Labour. Over 6,300 workers have taken at least one day off under the program.

B.C.’s temporary sick pay program provides up to three days of paid leave for workers who develop Covid symptoms. The province reimburses employers up to $200 per day, with any outstanding wages to be paid by the employers.

‘A rights-based approach to paid sick leave’
During Wednesday’s panel on the permanent sick pay program, Kim Novak, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1518, pushed back against the idea that it’s mostly mom and pop businesses that are worried about the impacts of paid sick leave.

“It’s actually the large, huge corporate conglomerates that actually have the money to be able to pay these benefits, that have been able to utilize these front-line workers as their largest assets, particularly through a pandemic that are saying ‘Oh no, no, no, no — we couldn’t possibly add that,’” Novak said.

She suggested the issue of paid sick leave should be reframed as a health and safety issue.

“To call it anything short of that is actually not putting it in the place that it needs to be,” she told attendees.

Novak said there is little evidence that workers abuse paid sick days by taking them when they are not ill.

“The reality is — when we look at our collective agreements that have paid sick days — that’s not what’s happening,” she said. “People are calling in sick when they’re sick, and they’re not using them if they don’t need to … In order to keep businesses running, and to keep workers working, there needs to be a rights-based approach to paid sick leave.”

Hemingway said research out of the U.S. backs Novak up. “People are using them judiciously — there’s little to no reporting of abuse,” he said.

New Zealand’s experience
Doubling paid sick days was one of the first actions taken by New Zealand’s re-elected Labour Party government in November 2020.

The policy change — which doubled the number of paid sick days per year from five days to 10 days — took effect in July.

Two months in, the new policy has mostly been functioning smoothly, according to Michael Wood, New Zealand’s Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, but “there has been some resistance” from employers.

“We’ve had to work through with the small business community in particular, but in general, there’s a high level of acceptance to this change,” he told attendees. “I think people understand in the current environment and have been reminded just how important good paid sick leave is.”

New Zealand’s program prioritizes ease of access and flexibility, according to Wood.

“Ensuring that there is wide application — universal application — is incredibly important,” he said, although he noted that contract and gig workers are not currently covered by the sick pay program.

“In our system parameters, a person’s sick leave can also apply in situations where that person has to take care of dependents, and that provides a particular value to many of our workers, particularly families,” Wood added, and the New Zealand program does “not make the distinction between someone who might be sick for a physical reason or sick for mental reasons.”