British Columbia’s NDP Needs to Mandate Paid Sick Days

In British Columbia, the social democratic NDP has disappointingly dragged its feet on legislating paid sick days. With a plan in the works for next year, the New Democratic Party needs to ignore the business lobby and side with workers.

During a recent COVID outbreak at Vancouver’s United Poultry facility, some workers experiencing symptoms and concerned about lost pay continued to report for their shifts.

As workplace rights go, paid sick days are about as rudimentary as it gets. Since no one plans to fall ill, it follows that no one deserves to lose pay over a few missed shifts. For this very reason, they are already a legal right in many jurisdictions, and employers are expected to bear the cost. The case for guaranteed paid sick days has only grown stronger in the era of COVID-19, which has routinely forced many workers to choose between losing a paycheck and putting their lives at risk.

For Canada’s only social democratic government, the British Columbia NDP, the policy should be a no-brainer. Pandemic-era sickness benefits offered by the federal Liberals, for one thing, are far from adequate, and nearly 90 percent of workers earning less than $30,000 a year currently have no sick days to speak of. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Alex Hemingway rightly points out, the vast majority of those workers are employed by large corporations rather than the small, family-run businesses who so often feature in business lobby agitprop.

To its credit, the government has introduced a number of solidly pro-worker measures since it took office — among them a minimum-wage increase, new laws to combat wage theft, and changes to the province’s labor code that have been welcomed by unions. In response to the pandemic, it legislated job protections for those forced to miss work because of COVID and provided for up to three unpaid days of leave due to injury or sickness. As the case of one Vancouver poultry plant shows, however, these measures are completely inadequate: following an outbreak at the city’s United Poultry facility, some workers experiencing symptoms and concerned about lost pay continued to report for their shifts. Pandemic or not, workers without the option of staying home in the event of illness lack a very basic workplace protection — and risk imperiling public health at large by going into work.

Officially, at least, British Columbia’s NDP government is currently “seeking input” from both workers and business interests, with the ultimate goal of enacting a new sick-day policy in January. Since it’s beyond obvious what the latter’s position will be, it’s difficult to see the process as much more than an exercise in foot-dragging. Employers categorically do not want to be made to bear the costs of paid sick days, and they can be fully expected to use every tool at their disposal to dissuade the government from adopting a worker-friendly policy.

Usefully, a report newly released by the British Columbia Federation of Labour makes the case for implementing just such a policy even more airtight than it already was. According to the Federation’s polling, public opinion in the province is firmly on the side of employer-funded paid sick days — with a full 89 percent agreeing with the statement “Businesses have a responsibility to provide paid sick days to their employees to ensure workers are not faced with the choice of working while sick or losing pay,” and 58 percent strongly agreeing. Meanwhile, 86 percent, indicated support for the Federation’s own proposal, which would guarantee workers up to ten days of sick leave every year and compel employers to shoulder the cost.

The right-wing case against social democratic parties has long hinged on the idea that they’ll be too deferential to the supposedly sectional interest represented by trade unions. Ironically enough, the experience of social democratic parties in government has often offered dispiriting evidence to the contrary — with even those with deep ties to organized labor doing their utmost not to rile the business lobby and the employer interests for which it fronts.

In this respect, Canada’s only NDP government now has an opportunity to situate itself within an altogether different tradition of social democratic administration: best represented by the likes of British Columbia’s own Dave Barrett, its left-wing premier in the early 1970s, who actively shunned the forces of so-called “free enterprise” in pursuit of a hugely ambitious left-wing agenda. When it comes to paid sick days, BC premier John Horgan and his cabinet have no excuse not do the same.