B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains takes questions about his decision to keep secret-ballot votes for union certification, as demanded by the B.C. Green Party, Nov. 20, 2019. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains takes questions about his decision to keep secret-ballot votes for union certification, as demanded by the B.C. Green Party, Nov. 20, 2019. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Pandemic-battered B.C. small businesses say they can’t afford sick pay

Labour minister says 5 days reflects average usage of paid leave

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains says he has listened to small businesses, which make up 95 per cent of licensed businesses in the province, and five paid sick days is a compromise to keep workplaces safe from COVID-19 and other viral infections.

Bains announced this week that the five-day minimum for employees covered by the Employment Standards Act is a legal requirement as of Jan. 1. A temporary program, in which WorkSafeBC reimbursed businesses without their own sick pay coverage for up to three days, is being wound up with most of its $310 million budget unspent.

B.C. Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone called on Bains to use that money to temporarily assist small businesses as the new sick pay measure is phased in, rather than return it to the province’s general revenue as pandemic-battered small businesses begin to absorb the costs in less than five weeks. Finance Minister Selina Robinson replied only that there is an urgent need for paid sick leave.

Bains repeatedly cited his ministry’s online survey, with 60,000 responses from employees, employers and interest groups in two phases, conducted since the temporary program was put in place in May. The first stage had 26,000 responses from workers and businesses, and a ministry summary says it found 60 per cent of businesses don’t offer paid sick leave. For those who do have employer sick pay, 70 per cent of respondents said they “typically do not use all of the paid sick days they get each year,” the ministry says.

The second phase was a choice between three options. The ministry says three days of sick pay was supported by 64 per cent of workers and 44 per cent of employers. The five-day option was supported by 75 per cent of workers and 28 per cent of employers, and the 10-day option was supported by 81 per cent of workers and 19 per cent of employers.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business issued its own survey of employers, which found only 38 per cent of B.C. members are making “normal sales,” and 64 per cent are opposed to additional employer-paid sick pay.

“All of this is coming at a time when the average B.C. small business is carrying $129,348 in COVID-19 related debt and estimates it will take around 21 months to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic,” CFIB president Dan Kelly said Nov. 24. “In fact, just over a third (35 per cent) of B.C. small businesses feel they are losing money every day that they are open.”

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Greater Vancouver Board of Trade president Bridgitte Anderson said the five-day measure is expected to cost employers between $506 million and $1.1 billion each year.

“With just one month until final implementation, it will be challenging for many small businesses, who have not budgeted for this cost, and are also dealing with the impacts of the floods, associated supply chain challenges, labour shortages, and inflationary pressures,” Anderson said in a statement Nov. 24.

Surrey Board of Trade president Anita Huberman endorsed the government’s choice. “Increasing paid sick leave to five days is an economic imperative,” she said.

Bains acknowledged that 95 per cent of businesses in B.C. have 50 or fewer employees, and many are self-employed people who won’t be eligible. B.C.’s employment leave standards also exempt federally regulated employers and other occupations and professions.

“Through our consultation, regardless of how many days employees are entitled to, those who enjoy sick leave provisions at their workplaces, or for the matter of a larger workforce, 87 per cent of the workers advised us that when they felt too sick to go to work, they utilized five days or less,” Bains told reporters at the legislature.


@tomfletcherbc
tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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