Why should taxpayers be on the hook for sick pay when multinationals are raking in money?

By Peggy Nash

Most low-income workers today just take a financial hit when it comes to sick pay. Their employers don’t pay, and the federal support program is too unwieldy and slow to help them much. Without pay, these workers can’t afford to take time off. .

Peggy Nash is a senior advisor to the Ryerson dean of arts and is chair of the Ryerson Centre for Labour Management Relations. She is a former NDP member of Parliament and a senior labour negotiator with UNIFOR. She has an honourary doctorate of laws from Brock University and was recently named to the Order of Canada.

They often don’t go to get tested, even if they may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, and they sometimes come to work sick. The people who can least afford to take sick days are the ones who suffer the financial consequences.

But who else should pay for it? Why should it be the taxpayer when often it’s a wealthy, multinational corporation that is profiting from the pandemic?

All 34 public health officials in Ontario have called on the Ontario government to reinstate the provision of paid sick days under the Employment Standards Act. They understand that lack of paid sick time is a public health concern. The current Progressive Conservative government removed the provision of two paid sick days per year, legislated by the previous Liberal government late in its term.

The Ontario government says it would be a duplication of federal benefits and tossed the issue back to the federal government, calling for improvements. But is this the solution? Why should our tax dollars, federal or provincial, cover the labour cost for Amazon, Walmart or any other profitable company? We don’t pay their rent, so why should public dollars pay for their labour?

There are several businesses reaping huge profits during the pandemic. In 2020, Amazon almost doubled its profits. The big telecom companies BCE, Rogers and Telus paid out $5.5 billion in dividends while still collecting $240 million in federal support. Big grocery retailers are seeing increased revenue and profits while most took back a $2 an hour pay increase for front-line staff. Even some private long-term care homes are making money. One of the largest, Chartwell Homes – with former Ontario premier Mike Harris as its board chair – had some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks yet was among the companies that paid out $1.5 billion in shareholder dividends over the last decade while keeping staff at poverty level wages.

Warehouse, grocery, long-term care and other front-line workers are often the lowest paid in the workforce. These are the very people without sick pay often working in temporary or precarious jobs. They are disproportionately racialized women with few options except to keep working to pay rent and keep food on the table. Why should they also lose money by taking unpaid sick days if their employer doesn’t keep them safe?

Why should all of society be put at risk because these profitable companies refuse to accept the full cost of keeping their business open? That means ensuring that their workforce is protected with all precautions possible. It also means ensuring that workers can get tested, wait for the results and stay home if they are sick. All this time off needs to be paid by these big, profitable employers.

Many employers already offer paid sick days for their employees, whether as a benefit to all or due to collective agreements. Legislation mandating paid sick days would just even out the playing field for businesses. This rewards those good employers that already have paid sick days and forces all others to pull up their socks and provide sick pay as a minimum standard for doing business.

It makes sense for provinces to amend employment standards laws to require these profitable companies to pay for sick days for their employees to keep everyone safe. This will also be an incentive for employers to ensure they are taking all precautions possible to keep COVID-19 at bay.

What about businesses that are not reaping windfall profits? Many are already on the brink of permanent closure because they are facing many additional hurdles during the pandemic. They likely can’t add another cost right now. However, just as there are several programs to help businesses struggling through the pandemic, there could be an additional support based on financial need for these troubled businesses to pay for sick days. If the large profitable employers are paying for their own sick day costs, we the taxpayers can afford to help these other businesses.

We are in a global pandemic. This is not a normal time. All those conservative arguments about how workers abuse sick pay that we heard in years past should be set aside. Shrugging off the responsibility to the government is unacceptable. Arguing unaffordability is unacceptable. Who can afford the loss of wages for taking sick days less than low-paid workers? We see every day how hard-working and dedicated front-line workers are. They are the ones disproportionately getting sick. Those of us who can work from home rely on their efforts to keep us alive. Let’s respect their work and their sacrifice, and do everything possible to keep them safe.

Who should cover the cost for paid sick days? Profitable companies need to cover this. The Ontario government needs to ensure that they live up to this responsibility. Now is the time for companies to ensure their employees can afford to stay safe. Jeff Bezos and his kind likely won’t even miss the money.

This article first appeared on Policy Options and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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