Open letter from health workers

All workers, especially those in low-wage and precarious employment, need 10 permanent paid sick days or their health will suffer, diseases such as COVID-19 will be more likely to spread — and more people will end up in the hospital.

That’s the message more than 160 physicians, nurses and other health-care workers are sending to the province with an open letter published Friday, calling on the government to legislate 10 paid sick days for all workers, public or private.

The letter was created by the Decent Work and Health Network, a health and labor rights advocacy group operated by health-care workers.

Health workers and advocates who signed the letter told the Star it’s unacceptable the province has not already made the change, two years into a pandemic that has disproportionately led to the hospitalization of racialized and low-income workers who do not have sick leave.

Ahead of a seventh wave that could come in the fall, all workers need as much protection as they can get, they said.

The letter comes as the three temporary paid sick days, called the Worker Income Protection Benefit, for COVID-related issues will expire at the end of July. It was introduced in April 2021 following pressure from public health experts. When it was launched, it faced criticism that more days were needed and that it should have been implemented earlier.

“Our patients should not have to choose between putting food on the table and following public health advice to stay home when sick,” the letter states.

It also says the current Ontario benefit has always been inadequate and “far from what front-line workers needed.”

“With the program’s expiration date looming, we fear that the government will turn its back on our patients in the most vulnerable situations.”

Paid sick days are associated with a reduced spread of infection, increased vaccination rates, and fewer emergency-room visits, it states.

“This call has been echoed by health providers, public health officials, experts, since the onset of the pandemic,” said Birgit Umaigba, a signatory and Toronto-based ICU nurse.

“Once a worker has used those three paid sick days, they’re not (renewable). If they get sick again with COVID-19, they do not qualify. This open letter renews that call because it’s a long past time for action.”

Umaigba said she has taken care of colleagues who got COVID from colleagues, because they went to work sick. With inflation at a four-decade high, few can afford to stay home without pay, she said.

“Immigrants and racialized groups are overrepresented with precarious work … and are least likely to have paid sick days.”

It’s difficult for workers in precarious jobs to ask for paid sick days they are entitled to, previous Star reporting has shown.

Racialized workers and newcomers to Canada often take precarious jobs to make ends meet and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Only 42 per cent of workers in Canada have access to paid sick leave. That number drops to 10 per cent for low-wage workers in the country, according to a 2021 report from Decent Work and Health.

In February, Ottawa urged all provinces to adopt 10 paid sick days — even though the federal government has not delivered on a promise to introduce 10 paid sick days for federal employees.

No province or territory has since taken up the call. British Columbia introduced five permanent paid sick days in January for workers who have worked for their employer for at least 90 days. Other provinces and territories have introduced paid sick leave since the pandemic began, but most are part of temporary programs.

Toronto’s medical officer of health also published a report in January 2021 urging the Ontario government to implement five paid sick days, and introduce 10 during an infectious disease outbreak.

When Ontario introduced the three paid temporary sick days, Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said the province was moving in the right direction but the federal government was not working fast enough to get other COVID-19 benefits to Ontarians .

A poll from the Ontario Federation of Labor released when the province brought in those sick days found that 83 per cent of Ontarians surveyed supported the government making employers pay for sick days.

Some small businesses also voiced their support for paid sick days in February last year.

Workers not only need paid sick days for themselves, they need to be able to stay home with their children if they get sick, said Dr. Shazeen Suleman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital who signed the letter.

Young children will have 10 to 15 colds a year, and often when children are very young, they will get severely ill, she said.

“A child doesn’t have any choice of when they are getting sick,” said Suleman. “If their parent doesn’t have access to a paid sick day they are having to either send them to school sick and go to work to put food on the table, or take care of their child.

“It’s low-wage workers who are typically denied the ability to stay at home. Therefore their children are going to be the ones who can’t get the care when they need it.”

Paid sick days should be the top priority for Ontario and it would be a move to toward greater labor and racial justice, as racialized groups are impacted the most by lack of paid sick days, said Dr. Naheed Dosani, the health equity lead at Kensington Health and member of the Decent Work and Health Network.

“This is something that needs to be put into place because we have seen the impact of a severely strained health-care system right now,” he said.

“Have we not learned any lessons from the immense suffering front-line workers had to go through?”

With files from Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Robert Benzie


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