Details announced on B.C.'s paid sick leave program coming into effect next year

B.C.'s permanent paid sick leave program, which is being implemented in the new year, will be a minimum of five days long, the province's labour minister announced Wednesday.

Harry Bains gave the update in an afternoon news conference, saying B.C. is the first province to implement a permanent, five-day program. The paid sick leave will begin Jan. 1 and is for full- and part-time workers covered by the Employment Standards Act. More work is being done to support those who are self-employed.

"I firmly believe that no worker should have to choose to work sick or stay home and lose wages," Bains said. "This announcement means B.C. will lead all other provinces."

In May, B.C. announced a temporary COVID-19 sick pay program, offering workers three days of paid leave for circumstances related to the coronavirus. Businesses had access to a provincial fund to offset costs. When that was implemented, officials said this would pave the way for a permanent program.

"This has made a big difference to workers who can stay home and get healthy with peace of mind. To employers who are ensuring that customers and employees are safe, and to our community by reducing the spread of COVID-19," Bains said. "Now we must look to the future."

The BC Liberals accused the NDP government of breaking a promise.

“We support government’s decision to introduce paid sick leave so no one has to choose between going to work sick or losing wages during this pandemic. However, John Horgan promised on multiple occasions that he would not burden businesses with the costs while they are still struggling with the impacts of the pandemic, and today’s announcement breaks that promise,” said Opposition Critic for Labour Greg Kyllo in a statement.

The Liberals went on to say money that was allocated for the temporary program but not used - a total of $310 million - should be used to offset costs.

The permanent plan will be paid for by employers like John Cantin of Victoria restaurant John's Place, who estimates the program could cost him $30,000 a year.

He said he supports paid sick leave, but said the province should help, especially in light of rising inflation. He said he may have to raise prices to deal with the cost.

"We are not against helping our staff," he said. "What we're upset is the government is not going to help in the middle of a pandemic."

The Surrey Board of Trade was at the news conference and president Anita Huberman said the organization supports five paid sick days.

In a news release, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade estimated the program could cost between $506 million and $1.1 billion annually and said small- and medium-sized businesses would struggle.

With labour shortages, supply chain issues and COVID-19, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says the province should pick up the tab.

"Most businesses in B.C. have told us they feel it'll be about 21 months for them to fully recover," CFIB's Seth Scott told CTV News.

"There's a lot going on right now and this is the last thing that small business needs."

The B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFED) led a campaign for 10 paid days, and is disappointed workers must be employed for 90 days before qualifying.

The Ministry of Labour told CTV News that the permanent plan will operate like the temporary one, and that employers can ask for proof of sickness.

Laird Cronk, president of BCFED told CTV News such a requirement "could be a real barrier" low-wage workers

"A low-wage worker who has to wait for a doctor's note, who has to pay $40 or $50 or $60, they may choose to go to work sick because of that."

Like the BC Federation of Labour, the Greens pointed out many countries around the world have legislated 10 days of paid sick leave.

"We were hoping for a policy decision based on clearly articulated public health and economic outcomes - not a median number plucked from a range of days,” said Sonia Furstenau, leader of the B.C. Green Party, in a news release.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during Wednesday's announcement that when someone goes to work sick, the entire workplace can be impacted, especially during the pandemic.

"We know that when someone is forced to go to work when they are ill, the workplaces are at risk," she said. "We have seen that too, where whole workplaces are shut down."

In the fall, B.C. opened a public survey asking residents for their thought on the plan. Three options were presented: three, five and 10 days of employer-paid sick leave. Federally, the Liberals are promising to bring in a 10-day sick pay plan.

Bains said five days was "a sustainable solution given the challenges faced by many sectors" and that data showed, on average, workers used fewer days than that. Officials said about half of B.C. employees don't have access to paid sick leave right now.

"I want to make it clear that this is not optional," Bains. "This is the law starting Jan. 1, 2022."

Only those covered by employment standards get coverage. The self-employed, contractors and gig workers are so far out of luck, but Bains said the province was looking into that. 

Economists, policy makers and researchers point out a sick pay plan helps increase equity, because those in low paying jobs, who are often women and people of colour, are typically without access to such a program.