The practicalities of paid sick leave

By Shannon Waters January 21, 2022

B.C.’s permanent employer-paid sick leave program took effect on January 1, providing all workers covered by the Employment Standards Act with five paid sick days per year after 90 days on the job.

Those mandated sick days do not accrue, according to the Ministry of Labour, meaning workers are entitled to use them as soon as their employment exceeds the 90-day window and every “employment year” — beginning from the date they were hired — thereafter.

While workers “cannot be expected to know in advance if they will be sick or injured” — and therefore cannot be expected to give notice before taking a day off — their employer can ask them to provide “reasonably sufficient proof” of illness or injury, “which could include a doctor’s note in some circumstances,” the labour ministry told BC Today.

“Determining what is ‘reasonably sufficient proof’ calls for flexibility and a balancing of the rights and the obligations of the employee and the employer,” the ministry said in a statement. “What will be reasonable and sufficient in the circumstances will depend on all of the facts of the situation.”

Pharmacy receipts and hospital admission bracelets could also count as sufficient proof, per the province’s guidelines on different types of employment leave, and “employers should allow a reasonable time frame” for sick or injured employees to provide the requested evidence of their illness or injury.

Labour Minister Harry Bains announces B.C.’s paid sick leave program last May. (Supplied)

Policy hits differently depending on pre-existing paid leave options

The five paid days per year are meant as a “minimum standard for workplaces,” but the new policy affects workers differently, depending on whether they were entitled to paid sick days before this year.

Workers whose employers provided sick leave policies more generous than the provincial policy but required those days to accrue over the course of the year now have access to five paid days per employment year, no accrual necessary.

“The remaining days would be allocated at the discretion of the employer,” the labour ministry told BC Today. Employers who offered their employees fewer than five paid sick days per year on an accrued basis fall entirely under the new policy, provided those employees are covered by the Employment Standards Act.

The situation is different for unionized workers. For those with collective agreements that provide paid sick leave entitlements that “considered together, meet or exceed” the provincial minimum, the agreement’s provisions supersede the provincial requirements, per the labour ministry.

Any disagreements over whether a collective agreement’s paid sick leave provisions “meet or exceed” the provincial standard have to be hashed out via arbitration.

Temporary program paid out one-third of latest cost estimate

January 17 was the final day for employers to file for reimbursement from the province for paid sick days taken by employees under the temporary program that ran from May 30 through the end of 2021.

The program provided workers whose employers did not previously offer sick pay with three paid days, with the province kicking in up to $200 a day for their wages and employers responsible for any difference with a full day’s pay.

As of January 16, the labour ministry paid out just over $10.5 million in temporary sick leave reimbursements, according to figures provided to BC Today. The labour ministry originally earmarked $325 million for the program, based on an assumption that 60 per cent of B.C. workers who did not have paid sick leave when the program launched would access the program. The government’s second quarterly report for 2021 revised that estimate down to $15 million.

WorkSafeBC, which administered the temporary program, received 9,511 applications as of January 16, and the average payout was $170 per reimbursement claim. A total of 26,946 employees took a combined total of 61,960 sick days in the last half of 2021, per the ministry-provided data — an average of 2.3 days per employee.