Speaking to British Columbia’s COVID-19 paid sick leave

May 12, 2021 | 42-1, Bills, Blog, Video | 0 comments

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic British Columbia has needed a paid sick leave benefit so workers who are feeling sick do not go to work.

Advocates have long stated that this is a critical program that will limit transmission of the disease in the workplace.

The program covers three days pay. Three days is better than nothing however, this program falls short of what is needed but unfortunately it is 15 months late.

[Transcript]

I’m pleased to rise today and speak to Bill 13, the Employment Standards Amendment Act (No. 2), 2021. I’ll comment on that in a few minutes here I think. It’s important to put on the record that it’s our perspective that three days off is better than none. So from that perspective, I think it’s important to recognize the action that this bill is taking. However, three days off is not sufficient when it comes to addressing the challenges the global pandemic COVID-19 has caused. This proposal that’s been put forward in this bill falls short of fixing the gaps in the federal program and means that many workers will continue to fall through the cracks.

It’s important to get on the record early in my comments that half-measures will not solve the problem of workers having to choose between staying home when they’re sick, and facing a possible financial devastation. We’ve heard already, early in this debate, from just the previous member, talking about how no worker should have to go to work sick, that this bill and this action is going to prevent transmission and that this is the type of bill that supports low-wage workers.

It’s important to acknowledge that we are 15 months into this pandemic. If those statements are true today, then those statements were true 15 months ago, meaning the lack of action over those 15 months at the provincial government level has put British Columbians at risk of unnecessary transmission of COVID-19. It’s the cognitive dissonance of the members of government that want to stand up today and celebrate this act and overlook the fact that there has been a significant amount of heel-dragging to get us here.

The reason why I thought it would be worthwhile to point out that this is the Employment Standards Amendment Act (No. 2) is because earlier in this session we were debating the Employment Standards Act “No. 1.” It didn’t have “No. 1,” because it was just the Employment Standards Amendment Act. So here we are in this spring session of the government, where we have the budget and the throne speech and all of these things, and we have two employment standards amendment acts. What does that say about the level of coordination, the level of preparation, the level of planning that’s going on in the government side of this House? Did we have to have two employment standards amendment acts?

These are not for issues that could be deemed as unforeseen. These are for issues that are very much part of the narrative that’s been brought forward by advocates, by experts, that we need to put in place a paid sick leave program that’s going to support workers to make the decision to stay at home to decrease transmission rates in our communities, that we should put in place a measure that allows workers to step away from their job for a period of time to go and get a vaccine.

Every time we raise an issue about COVID-19 these days, the government’s spin machine twists it to: “Oh, and by the way, we have 50 percent of British Columbians vaccinated.” But that’s not even true. What is true is that we have 50 percent of eligible adult British Columbians vaccinated. That’s an important distinction because it is a remarkably different number if 50 percent of British Columbians were vaccinated than the numbers that are put out there today.

So when I hear the previous member speaking to this House suggest — and it may be a mistake, however, it’s important to acknowledge that every time it pivots to the amount of vaccinations, it is a distraction from the fact that this government has had already had two employment standards amendment acts in this Legislature.

There was such a lack of coordination on behalf of the government that they couldn’t put those two pieces together, in the context of the fact that, as was raised by the member for Shuswap, the Premier was out in the public, in front of the camera, in front of the microphone, saying: “We’ve got a plan. It’s on the shelf. We’re just advocating with the federal government. We hope that they’re going to put in a plan to save us from having to do it and from having to spend from the provincial treasury to look after the business of the province. We’re hoping that the feds step in. We’ve got a plan.”

Except every indication that I have, in this process to get this bill, from the fact that we’ve got two employment standards amendment acts this session and the fact that the information that we get is that this has been very much a harried process….. Government is scrambling to get this in front of us as a response to an overwhelming call from British Columbians and an overwhelming call from people across the country, on those provinces, including British Columbia, that does not have a paid sick leave program for people to help them make the decision to stay home when they’re not feeling well.

This was one of the first things that our Premier advocated for back in 2020 when we were responding to COVID-19. “We need a paid sick leave program.” He said over and over again that he was advocating with the federal government to do that. So it’s not like this is something new. So when I hear the members from the government side of the House celebrate this act today, it must be done in the context that if everything they say is true — that no worker should have to go to work sick, that this is going to prevent transmission, that this is going to support low-wage workers….

If that is true today, it was true yesterday and every day previous, back to March of 2020. And every day that we have not had that option in front of British Columbia, that support for British Columbians, that they were made aware of it, is a day that put people — vulnerable people, people who didn’t necessarily have the financial means to take a day off to stop themselves from getting sick — at risk.

This government put them at risk of that transmission, and that is entirely and completely unacceptable. It’s important that we call out the cognitive dissonance that we hear in the speeches already, in the early part of this debate, and that we put a name to it, because it’s not acceptable.

Celebrate the second employment standards amendment act of this session. Celebrate it, if you will. That’s fine. It’s a good step, and it’s one that we’ve been waiting for. But don’t celebrate it like it’s some kind of superhero coming in to save us from this. In fact, it is actually too little and pretty late. Especially since, in question period this afternoon, the Premier stands up and is talking about how we’re nearing the end of the pandemic. If that is, in fact, the case, why is this being brought forward now?

So, let’s put some context around what it is that we’re doing here today. We are scrambling to a finish line that was established by the public who demanded this action. It was only the demands of the public, and it was only the demands of the advocates, and it was only the demands of people like the B.C. Federation of Labour, who were demanding this program be put in place, that finally got this reluctant government to stop dragging its heels and put something in front of us. And what is in front of us falls far short.

Laird Cronk from the B.C. Federation of Labour says: “It never made sense for workers to go to work sick. Permanent paid sick leave protects workers and their co-workers, strengthens public health and ensures economic resiliency at the same time. Workers struggling with a COVID-19 illness face far greater than three days of lost pay. They face potential economic devastation.” That’s Laird Cronk, B.C. Federation of Labour.

He goes on. He says: “Ensuring workers don’t have to make the untenable decision between staying home with symptoms or working sick to put food on the table and to pay the rent is critical during this deadly race between variants and vaccines.”

I’ll just pause here for a second, because it’s only the vaccines that this government wants to talk about. They’re not talking about the variants anymore. Thankfully, Mr. Cronk raises the issue of the variants, because this government doesn’t want to talk about them anymore. We’re only talking about the vaccines.

Mr. Cronk continues: “COVID-19 is not going away after three days.” This is the advocacy that three days of paid sick leave as a bridge doesn’t nearly go far enough. Even at this late date, it is far less than what is needed. For 15 months workers have been having to make the choice that the members from the government side of the House are celebrating today — that when this bill passes, they won’t have to make that decision anymore. We’re going to help them out.

It’s worth noting that this is an NDP majority government that is putting this bill forward, and it’s completely way off the mark.

Another quote. Paul Finch, treasurer of the BCGEU tweeted: “This government was elected with a majority to provide the supports working people need to make it through this pandemic. Mimicking the Ford government’s quota on paid sick days, a year late, doesn’t just fall short of the mark; it misses it entirely.”

He’s talking about the Ford government, the government of Ontario, whose three-day paid sick leave was panned and who, yesterday, I guess…. The great distinction that our Premier wanted to draw between our paid sick leave, which is dramatically better, and the Ontario paid sick leave was that theirs ends in September and ours goes all the way to December. But other than that, pretty close to being the same.

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, talking about that Ford government plan in Ontario said: “…offering people a pathetically inadequate three paid sick days is not good enough, especially not during a global pandemic that makes people sick for at least 14 days.” That is four days more than what the B.C. Federation of Labour is advocating for with a ten-day paid sick leave program.”

While the NDP has been waiting for the feds to step in, people have been getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The foot-dragging by this government is completely unacceptable. We’ve needed, for all those 14 months, for every day and every month since COVID-19 hit, a government that’s been ready to act and do the things that are necessary to stop this pandemic and to protect British Columbians. But we’ve been missing that boat for 14 months.

Okay. I’ll give credit that our Premier did say it first — that we needed a paid sick leave program. But that’s where the credit ends, because he had no follow-through, none at all, even when he had the majority government that he craved so bad last fall. for the last eight months, he’s had this majority government.

We sat in here in December. We sat in here in March. We sat in here in April. We put employment standards amendment acts up previously — nothing about paid sick leave. Only after the public demanded this government do something because the experts were saying this was a needed step in order to stop the community transmission, the transmission in the workplaces, only after this government took the last week or so to debate how they were going to deal with this when we were doing our constituency week, we finally see this bill now in May of 2021, 15 months later.

This province has long needed permanent solutions that provide paid sick days to everybody. Right now only about half of the workers get paid sick leave, sick days. Disproportionately lower-income and racialized workers do not receive this benefit, and they’re paying with their health.

COVID-19 has shown the need for all workers to have the ability to stay home when they’re not feeling well. We’ve seen the danger when that provision is not made available to British Columbians. CBC journalist Justin McElroy tweeted today: “New community level data just released by the B.C. government continues to show the positivity rate above 20 percent in many of the poorer and less white areas of Surrey.”

That’s who this government has been ignoring. Racialized neighbourhoods. Less well-off neighbourhoods. Those who face poverty. Those who cannot afford to make the decision to say home because they need to pay the bills — because they need to put food on the table for their kids and family members. Those are the most vulnerable people, are the ones that for the last 14 months this government has ignored. That’s not acceptable.

These are front-line, low-paid workers. These are the people that we rely on in our society. No support. Lots of talk. Lots of disappointment in the Prime Minister: “So disappointed.” Yet not willing to acknowledge the lack of action that’s been done up until the second employment….

We are ignoring the most vulnerable people, and these are actually the least protected people as well, because these are also folks who up until very recently have not been eligible for a vaccine, despite the calls from people in our communities asking for vaccinations for front-line workers. We had an age-based program — the vaccination program in the most recent weeks. The government’s been scrambling out different variations of the vaccination program with very, very poor communications about it.

These are…. Not only are they folks that can least afford to take the day off because of an illness, they’re also the people that are least likely to have been vaccinated now. That just makes the whole situation even more uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We stand here in this place — don’t we feel uncomfortable about that? Instead, we have a tone from members of government of celebration, and a celebratory tone?

I feel kind of uncomfortable that I can stand here in this place and say these words and they’d be the truth of the matter. That should make all 87 members of this place feel a little out of sorts, I would think, knowing what we’ve known — knowing what our Premier has known.

Yet rather than actually do something, use the power that is bestowed in the members of that side of the House to actually put in place a program earlier than 15 months late, this government and this Premier has instead engaged in this rather, kind of really unfortunate, game of chicken with the federal government, saying: “You’re going to do it, or I’m going to do it.” It was unfortunate to see that it wasn’t in their budget, and it’s not in our budget. It’s in nobody….

British Columbians lose confidence in their government when they see the elected leaders of their communities posturing like we’ve seen the Premier posturing with the Prime Minister on this matter. What British Columbians want when they elect a government…. When the Premier stands up with all the bluster in question period today: “That’s why we’re on this side of the House and you’re on that side of the House.” When the people of British Columbia give the blessing of a majority government to a Premier and to a cabinet, they don’t expect them to play games with the federal government.
They don’t expect the posturing. They expect leadership. That’s what was promised in the fall of 2020: leadership. “We need this majority government so we can lead without all the distractions of the junior partner, without all the distractions of a minority situation. The House might fall this day or that day. We don’t want those distractions. What we want to is a majority government to lead this province through this COVID-19 pandemic public health crisis.”

Instead we get, 15 months later, a bill that doesn’t go far enough to support the very most vulnerable people in our society. In addition to that, we get the government using the same bill to open up the ability to give themselves the ability to put a permanent paid sick day program in place through regulation.

Now, I said earlier that I believe, that we believe, that there needs to be a paid sick day program for all in this province. That’s a position that we take. That’s what we believe. Why would I then be frustrated about the fact that the government is opening up the ability for them to then do that through regulation? There’s a number of reasons why.

First of all, there is no accountability and no debate that happens about that program. It’s not a public process. It’s a private process that gets done through cabinet. As well — and this should be the point that I think the B.C. Federation of Labour and the labour leaders in this province need to pay very, very, very close attention to because of the political environment of this province — when those days are put in regulation, they don’t require legislation to change them.

Just as we can celebrate all these days of a permanent program, perhaps starting in January 2022 — perhaps, it’s not been done yet. The consultation is still to go. If the government falls and there is a new government in place, the exact same act that put those days in place is the same act that can remove those days.

Why would we think that there is going to be anything else that has happened in this province than what has happened in this province in the past, which is that pendulum swing back and forth. One government doing one thing. Next government changing it. Then it swings back and forth.
What we need is we need stability. Businesses need stability. Employers need stability. There needs to be stability in this House. That is why it needs to be done through the legislative process and not through regulations — because through the legislative process, it has to happen in public. There has to be debate. There has to be a process similar to the one that we’re putting in place and going through right now for this bill, which, with a lot of certainty, is going to pass because the NDP has the majority.

At the very least, we get to stand and talk about the important issues that are impacting British Columbians, the important issues that are going to impact business owners, entrepreneurs, people who have invested their livelihoods into their business. The issues that are going to impact labour organizations around the province.

For me, section 2 of this bill provides none of that certainty. Yes, it does give the government the blank cheque, that they’d so love to have, to be able to regulate this paid sick leave through regulation. They can pick whatever number they want, but it should not be celebrated too vociferously when that happens, because at any time the government could change that using exactly the same tools that they used to set it.

I think that, in the consultation process, labour leaders need to be really clear. Of course, they will advise government however they advise government, but my advice is: we need to have this done through legislation so that whatever it is that is done has the ability to create certainty.

Whether we love the decision or not, at the very least there will be certainty and people can then plan their investments and their next actions on that.
As I wrap up here, I just want to say that despite the Premier’s promises last summer that there was a plan on the shelf that could be dusted off and rolled out when the federal government let us down, that is not the case. There wasn’t a plan. The government scrambled to this day for us to debate this. They put together a plan that was a program that fell far short of what’s needed to support workers –– far too little, far too late –– and then also have given themselves the ability to regulate a permanent program which doesn’t create the level of certainty that is going to be needed for both the employer and the employee, as it’s left up to the whim of whoever it is that’s taking up the seats of the executive in this province.

With that, I think it’s important to be clear here. Three days are better than no days. But it is far from adequate to provide the people the time that they need to be tested and to recover –– if they have the unfortunate positive test of COVID-19, to recover. It provides a bridge, but barely. This is certainly not as organized, nor should it be celebrated, as I’ve heard in the content of some of these speeches, knowing just the level of vulnerability that this government has accepted, the lack of action it has created. It should be a sombre day in this place that we’re finally here, that we’re finally doing this work that should have been done a long time ago, because a lot of people have contracted COVID in the time that this House has not put this bill forward. Many people have passed away in that time. Many people have lost loved ones.

And so I think it needs to be done in that context. Half-measures will not solve the problems of workers having to choose between staying home when they’re sick and facing possible financial devastation. What we need from this government is to put forward a plan that does accommodate the needs of those workers and that does respect the needs of the business owners and that is a truly collaborative process, not something that we’re scrambling to this day and that obviously has not been well-thought-through.

With that, thank you, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity to speak to Bill 13.

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