'The time has certainly come now': Ontario paid sick days urgently needed amid deadly third wave, officials say

A man holds up a sign as a group advocating for Provincially mandated paid sick days for workers participates in a 'die-in' rally outside Queens Park in Toronto, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Health-care workers and Toronto’s mayor are urgently calling for paid sick days as the COVID-19 third wave pushes hundreds of Ontario residents into critical care.

Mayor John Tory made the request during a news conference Monday morning, saying there is a desperate need for paid sick days to help people stay home when experiencing symptoms of the deadly disease.

“If paid sick days time hadn’t come before this, which I believe they had … then the time has certainly come now when we’re in the third wave,” Tory said. “It is one that is taking an even worse toll it would seem in terms of intensive care unit occupancy and hospital overload.”

The calls for provincially legislated paid sick leave have been growing amid the third wave of the pandemic.

Public health experts and municipal leaders say that essential employees are choosing to go to work with COVID-19 symptoms rather than self-isolate over worries of much-needed lost wages.

“People shouldn't be afraid of treating themselves properly, getting tested, getting vaccinated, staying home when they're sick because of the fear of missing a paycheck,” Tory told reporters.

“We have a very serious challenge on our hands and we need to have everything done that is going to make people feel comfortable.”

In January, Premier Doug Ford said, “there’s no reason for the province to jump in” because the federal government has already taken steps to provide some support for workers when sick.

During the second wave of the pandemic, the federal government launched the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which provides $500 per week for up to two weeks, for workers who are sick or must self-isolate for reasons related to COVID-19.

Critics say the benefit is not enough as it pays less than a full-time minimum wage job, has processing delays of up to four weeks, and does not provide job security for workers who use it.

“Based on what we see happening, it's still not enough,” Tory said.

The Ford government also voted against the Ontario NDP’s proposed “Stay At Home If You’re Sick” act, which would give employees the right to seven days of paid emergency leave and another three unpaid days of leave every year.

The bill also included a provincial support program to help businesses owners cover the costs.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development told CTV News Toronto in a statement that the province is working with the federal government to "maximize" the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

"We are not going to duplicate an existing program," the spokesperson said on Monday. "However, our government has been advocating on behalf of workers to ensure money is distributed faster, is easier to access, and is accessible to workers who need it multiple times."

A critical care doctor in Toronto has been publically documenting on social media the number of patients in his hospital due to COVID-19. He says that a great number of people are in hospital due to issues related to unpaid sick leave.

“We used this portable heart-lung machine as salvage therapy in a younger patient whose lungs had been damaged by COVID,” Dr. Michael Warner, the medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital, tweeted over the weekend.

“Until [the Ontario government] provides essential workers with paid sick days, workplace protection and access to vaccinations, this machine will continue to be used.”

We used this portable heart-lung machine as salvage therapy in a younger patients whose lungs had been damaged by #COVID.

Until @ongov provides essential workers with #PaidSickDays, workplace protection & access to vaccinations, this machine will continue to be used. pic.twitter.com/JuAgPhFm8N

— Michael Warner (@drmwarner) April 2, 2021

Warner has previously said he cared for several personal support workers who have had to go to work sick due to lack of paid leave. He said sufficient paid sick leave for workers would have helped significantly in preventing another lockdown.

“Paid sick leave should not be a benefit you apply for, it's knowing your monthly paycheck will not be reduced if you take time off to get a COVID test/isolate pre-result,” Warner tweeted.

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca also echoed the calls for paid sick leave on Monday, saying lives could be saved if the province finally brings in measures to help keep workers home when ill.

Critical care doctors say that it would cost Ontario $114 to cover one day of paid sick leave for a minimum-wage worker. In comparison, the cost for caring for one critically ill COVID-19 patient for one day in intensive care is anywhere between $3,500 and $5,000.

In addition to paid sick leave, advocates and heath-care experts are calling for COVID-19 vaccines for essential workers, better protection in workplaces and mandatory rapid testing in congregate work settings.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, told reporters during a news conference on Monday that paid sick leave for workers and vaccinations are both important strategies needed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“I think the important part about vaccines that we all need to understand is it is an absolutely important strategy, but it is one that has its greatest effects weeks down the road,” she said.

“So the ability to stay home from work when you're sick is a today strategy; vaccines is a strategy that protects better for tomorrow and will prevent future waves of infection."