There’s wide consensus that workers should not go to work when they have COVID symptoms, but what can the Canadian government and employers do to ensure this doesn’t happen? Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor, suggests ways to achieve this objective. 

How best can the policymakers ensure that workers don’t go to work when they have COVID symptoms?

There is no single policy that can ensure workers never go to work when experiencing COVID symptoms, but policy should do what it can to make the decision for workers to stay home as easy as possible.  That means providing workers with confidence that taking time off will not jeopardize their job security and will not result in lost pay. It also means being willing to force workplace closures where outbreaks occur. 

How does legislated paid leave work and what are the benefits and drawbacks?

Outside of a pandemic, governments are reluctant to legislate paid sick leave because guaranteeing workers a fixed number of paid days off for illness tends to increase employee absenteeism. The economics research also shows that paid sick leave policies increase discrimination in employee recruitment against applicants who are expected to take more sick days, such as workers with disabilities. Nonetheless, a health pandemic is not the time for governments or employers to worry about excessive absenteeism. 

How feasible is it for the government to compensate employers for employees’ time off due to COVID-related issues?

It is entirely feasible if the political will is there. Unfortunately, sick leave policies became a political football during the pandemic as proponents of provincially legislated paid sick leave have argued that the federal government’s sick leave policy – the Canadian Recovery Sickness Benefit – is inadequate. Sadly, this advocacy resulted in misinformation about the federal policy, as well as exaggerated claims about the efficacy of paid sick leave policies in mitigating workplace virus spread. This has likely distracted us from advocating for other measures that may be more effective, including antigen (rapid) testing and targeted vaccinations in workplaces. Fortunately, both Ontario and British Columbia have now legislated a minimum of 3 paid sick days for all workers, which addresses a key shortcoming of the federal policy. 

What more can employers do to protect their workers? 

Without question, our best chance of containing the COVID virus and its variants are vaccines. With the supply of vaccines expected to accelerate through the spring and summer, we will soon reach the point where the constraint isn’t supply, but vaccine hesitancy in the population. The single most effective measure employers can take to protect their workers and their businesses is to encourage their employees to get vaccinated and support them in taking time off work to get it done. 

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