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Expanded sick leave is turning out to be one of the permanent policy legacies of the pandemic – even though programs from the federal government and some provinces have been notable flops.

On Wednesday, British Columbia announced details of a permanent employer-paid sick leave program, building on a temporary government-funded predecessor launched earlier this year. Ontario has extended its temporary program and may do so again depending on the course of the pandemic.

Ottawa launched its own pandemic sick leave program, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, or CRSB, months before Ontario and B.C. introduced their initiatives. Now, the federal Liberals are preparing to legislate 10 permanent employer-paid sick days for federally regulated employees, up from the current requirement of three days.

During this year’s election campaign, the Liberals promised to move quickly to implement that policy, and to nudge the provinces and territories to put in place their own versions. This week, Liberal House Leader Mark Holland said his government wants to get sick leave legislation passed before Christmas.

But the growing momentum for paid sick leave across the country ignores the conspicuous underperformance of the programs launched during the pandemic. Unions and other progressive lobby groups insisted sick leave programs were critically needed during the pandemic, but far fewer workers than expected have actually accessed those benefits.

Why billions in federal sick-leave benefits have gone untapped

The design of the federal program had been criticized for requiring workers to apply for retroactive payments, leaving applicants to cope with a weeks-long interruption in wages. A mere two months after launching the CRSB, Ottawa slashed its budget by 85 per cent.

This week, B.C. followed suit, cutting the original budget of $325-million to just $15-million. The province says it’s spent $5-million to date for its sick leave program, which reimburses employers up to $200 a day for up to three days of sick leave.

Ontario has not formally reduced the budget for its temporary pandemic sick leave program, which also reimburses employers up to $200 a day for up to three days. But as of Nov. 19, the province had disbursed just $77.7-million out of a $2-billion budget. Both the B.C. and Ontario governments said the initial budget estimates for their paid sick leave programs reflected an effort to ensure there was sufficient funding for any eventuality, rather than a precise forecast.

In B.C., Labour Minister Harry Bains pointed to his province’s temporary pandemic sick leave as a success and as a reason to introduce a permanent program. “This has made a big difference to workers, who can stay home and get healthy with peace of mind,” Mr. Bains told reporters on Wednesday. “Now we must look to the future.”

However, labour-force statistics don’t support Mr. Bains’s assertions.

University of Waterloo economist Mikal Skuterud analyzed data from Statistics Canada’s monthly labour-force survey, looking at the average weekly sickness absenteeism rates for unionized and non-unionized employees from May to October, starting in 2010 and continuing through to 2021. Workers were counted as absent once they lost at least one hour of work in a week because of illness.

Prof. Skuterud chose May as a starting point because it roughly corresponds to when Ontario and B.C. introduced their pandemic sick leave programs in the spring of this year.

As the chart below indicates, his analysis shows absenteeism rates for non-unionized workers barely budged compared with 2020, when there was no pandemic sick leave program in B.C., and actually declined from 2019. By contrast, absenteeism rates for unionized workers – many of which already have bargained for access to employer-paid sick days – rose to their highest level since 2010.

Prof. Skuterud said if B.C.’s pandemic sick leave was having the intended effect, the gap in absenteeism rates between unionized and non-unionized workers should have shrank. It did not. In fact, the gap increased slightly from 2020 to 2021, and was bigger than in any year since at least 2010.

The same pattern shows up in Ontario. Absenteeism rates for non-unionized workers were below prepandemic levels in 2021, as this second chart shows. In addition, the gap between unionized and non-unionized workers grew.

In an interview, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton defended his government’s sick leave policy, saying the goal is to ensure it is an option for all employees as long as the pandemic continues. “These paid sick days will be there for workers until COVID is defeated,” he said, not ruling out a further extension of the temporary measure.

Unlike B.C.’s NDP government, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives are not talking about a permanent sick leave program. Shortly after coming to office in 2018, the PC government rolled back its Liberal predecessor’s move to require employers to provide two days of paid sick leave.

Prof. Skuterud said the money spent by Ontario and B.C. likely went to workers who would have taken sick days even in the absence of a government program.

Quebec’s experience with sick leave and absenteeism during the pandemic contrasts that of Ontario and B.C.

To begin with, the province already had a policy requiring employers to provide two paid sick days a year to employees. As this third chart shows, sickness absenteeism rates for non-unionized employees in Quebec rose sharply in 2021, narrowing the gap with their unionized counterparts.

Prof. Skuterud said one possible explanation for the different experience in Quebec is the province’s policy predates the pandemic. Employers and employees have had the time to grow comfortable with the use of sick days. Non-unionized workers, in particular, may have had the opportunity to see that taking sick days did not result in reprisals, such as reduced hours.

Both Mr. Bains and Mr. McNaughton said there would be no tolerance for any employer who was found to be disregarding the sick leave mandate.

But Prof. Skuterud said the problem may be one of trust in the system, rather than any explicit rule-breaking by employers. There has simply not been enough time since the launch of the temporary programs this spring to develop a Quebec-like level of trust among workers in Ontario and B.C.

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