HALIFAX — Some Nova Scotians are calling for paid sick leave because they say the government's decision to lift remaining COVID-19 health orders will burden families who may feel pressured to go to work while sick with the disease.
NDP labour critic Kendra Coombes says she’s been inundated with concerns from constituents after chief medical officer Dr. Robert Strang said earlier this week that all pandemic restrictions will be lifted Wednesday.
“A constant I’m hearing is that people can’t afford not to work, but they also want to be responsible and not spread illness," she said in an interview Tuesday.
"And now this added protection has been taken away," Coombes said of the mandatory isolation policy, noting that workers who are immunocompromised are particularly concerned.
Strang on Monday said people who test positive for COVID-19 or have COVID-19-like symptoms should isolate if possible but would no longer be forced to. He said the government was also shifting its guidance on masking and limiting PCR testing to certain high-risk groups.
When asked if he was concerned that the shift may lead people with COVID-19 to keep working and potentially infecting others, Strang said that’s a “long-standing issue” that predates COVID-19.
The government and business sector, he said, should figure out “how we do a better job of supporting people to stay home” when they’re sick.
Coombes says establishing permanent paid sick days is essential because the majority of Nova Scotians do not get paid when they are off sick. Nova Scotia's labour standards, meanwhile, allow workers a minimum of three days a year during which they can call in sick — without getting paid.
In a study published in 2021, research institute Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 54 per cent of working Nova Scotians did not have paid sick time and 69 per cent of workers who made less than $25,000 annually had no paid sick time.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the province temporarily implemented a program that covered up to four paid sick days per person between May and July 2021 and then again between April and May 2022.
Coombes says she would like to see this program reinstated to go along with the end of isolation restrictions, but she says a permanent sick-day policy is needed beyond COVID-19.
A spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Department of Labour says the province is not considering extending its temporary sick-day program. "We continue to encourage employees and employers to have discussions on how best to support each other when someone is sick," Marla McInnis said in an email.
Christine Saulnier, Nova Scotia director with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in an interview Tuesday the lifting of the mandatory isolation order will worsen working conditions for Nova Scotians.
“Now that there is no government mandate, no precautionary principles in place, the pressure will be on workers to go in sick," she said.
"Two and a half years into a pandemic, we should have learned the lesson that workers don’t deserve to go into work sick."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press