P.E.I.'s Official Opposition brought forward a bill for debate in the legislature Thursday which would require employers provide ten paid sick days a year to workers — the most of any province in the country.
Currently, P.E.I. requires only one paid sick day per year, and that's only for employees who've been with the same employer for five years.
Under the Employment Standards Act, employees are entitled to three unpaid sick days per year after six months on the job.
They simply cannot afford to take a day off when they are sick if they're not getting paid. — Trish Altass
Some provinces require no paid sick days. B.C. recently brought in legislation requiring five. The government of Doug Ford in Ontario now requires three.
With P.E.I. preparing to lift mandatory isolation requirements for COVID-19, the bill's sponsor Trish Altass said an expansion of paid sick leave in the province can't wait.
"We have so many Islanders right now who are struggling, who are living paycheque to paycheque, and they simply cannot afford to take a day off when they are sick if they're not getting paid," said Altass.
"We don't want Islanders going to work sick. It is bad for their health. It's bad for public health. And it's bad for our health-care system."
'This would be a significant cost to business,' minister says
During debate, the province's Minister of Economic Development Bloyce Thompson told the house between 48 and 58 per cent of Island workers receive no paid sick days.
But he questioned the consultation process the Greens used to develop their bill, the math formula they included to calculate lost wages and the impact the change would have on businesses.
"I think we all can agree that this would be a significant cost to business," he said. "Business stakeholders who've reached out to me and have raised concerns about the cost of this program, particularly given they're facing the same inflation pressures and costs everyone is."
"I think we can all agree, minister, that this is already a significant cost to workers, who are the ones that are paying this currently," replied Altass.
"They are the ones that are missing out on pay or going to work sick."
Early in the pandemic, the province created a COVID-19 special leave fund to pay workers for time missed due to illness, the need to isolate or to care for family members.
Initial uptake in the program was low, but the province said Tuesday that of $2 million in funding available since the program was introduced, $1.4 had been allocated.
Employers submit applications under the program on behalf of workers, but there's no requirement for them to do so, and the Greens said some have simply chosen not to, leaving their workers unpaid for time missed.
Altass said the special leave fund could form the foundation of a support program to help businesses manage the costs of expanded sick leave, something her legislation suggests the province do. As a private member's bill, her legislation can't force the government to spend money.
Greens ask barrage of sick leave questions to ministers during question period
During question period, Green MLAs peppered every government minister in the room with questions around sick leave, receiving largely the same response in return — that government is waiting for results from a review of the Employment Standards Act.
"Dr. Morrison has repeatedly asked Islanders to stay home when they're sick," Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said to the premier, referring to the province's chief public health officer.
"How do you suggest that Islanders who don't have paid sick days follow her sound advice?"
"The deputy premier is on record saying that Islanders should tighten their belts when facing the high cost of living," said Green MLA Lynne Lund.
"For Islanders who are a paycheque away from hunger or homelessness, who can't afford to take a day off of work without pay, is your advice to go to work sick or to tighten your belt?"
"We are facing very hard times as a province and as a country. As a government, we will do what we can for Islanders," responded Minister of Agriculture and Land Darlene Compton.
"And as many of my colleagues have said, we look forward to a review of the Employment Standards Act."
The last review of the Employment Standards Act was in 2006. Calls for another review came before the government of Dennis King was in power.
Altass said it will be two years before any legislation comes forward out of the review.
She said the isolation requirement for COVID-19 was one of the "last measures that ensured workers would be able to take the time off if they needed it when they were sick with COVID.
"Without that, there's really no way to ensure that workers can take the time off when they are sick unless you legislate it, unless you make sure that all workers have that protection."