A provision of the Employment Standards Act that allows extended, emergency unpaid sick leave for workers isolating with COVID-19 will no longer be in effect once mandatory isolation requirements end, the P.E.I. government has confirmed.
The province's chief public health officer has said the five-day mandatory isolation period for those who test positive for COVID will not be extended beyond the end of November.
By eliminating the requirement for employers to allow time off for workers to isolate, the province is "putting workers in an impossible position, to make a choice that no worker should ever have to choose," said Green MLA Trish Altass.
Altass said workers will now have to decide whether to show up to work sick, or stay home at the risk of losing their job.
"It is bad enough that we have workers who will not be paid when they need to take the time off when they're sick," Altass said.
"But we also have situations where workers' jobs themselves are at risk, where they could lose their jobs for choosing to stay home and protect others from becoming ill."
If that happens, Altass noted there would no longer be any protection for those workers under the Employment Standards Act.
Measure implemented at start of pandemic
In 2020 the province passed an amendment to the act to allow unpaid emergency leave for workers to isolate or care for a family member required to isolate.
But the measure applies only in certain situations, including during a declared public health emergency or under the direction of the chief public health officer.
The measure "is intended to apply in situations of public emergencies, not individual emergencies," according to a statement provided by the Department of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture.
Employers on P.E.I. are normally required to provide three unpaid sick days per year to workers after three months of employment.
'We hope nobody gets fired'
After five years of continuous employment, workers receive one day of paid sick leave.
"It's going to be a tough situation and we hope nobody gets fired because they have COVID in the next few months," said P.E.I.'s Minister of Economic Growth Bloyce Thompson.
If that happens, Thompson said that person could file a complaint with the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission.
"They can always apply there, and if they have questions, the department is willing to work with everyone to try to make sure nobody falls through the cracks."
Thompson has said his department plans to extend a special leave fund which allows employers to apply to the province for funding to cover sick pay for workers isolating with COVID-19.
But there's no requirement that employers apply on behalf of workers who need to isolate, and both Altass and Thompson said some workers have reported their employers are refusing to do that — even while that isolation remains mandatory.
Altass said the fund "is giving power to the employers to be able to make decisions about the health of workers … workers are not empowered to make their health decisions for themselves and that is simply, that's not right."
Bill to extend paid leave defeated
On Tuesday Altass introduced a bill which would have provided ten paid sick days per year to Island workers. The bill was defeated.
During debate, Thompson said between 48 to 58 per cent of Islanders have no access to paid sick leave.
The vote on that bill split strictly along party lines, with Green MLAs voting in favour, and PC and Liberals voting against it.
Thompson has pointed to an ongoing review of the Employment Standards Act, and said his government will bring amendments regarding paid sick leave to the legislature in the fall of 2023.