Horgan did not provide details on what a made-in-B.C. program would look like but he reiterated his disappointment that the federal government did not expand the current sick leave program

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Premier John Horgan said B.C. is working on bringing forward its own provincial sick-leave program to “fill in the gaps” left by the federal government. However, the B.C. Liberals say such a program should have been introduced a year ago, well before the third wave of the pandemic.

Horgan did not provide details on what a made-in-B.C. program would look like but he reiterated his disappointment that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not expand the current sick-leave program in last week’s federal budget.

“The federal government has done what they believe is enough and we’ll be left to fill the gaps,” Horgan said during an unrelated press conference Tuesday. The province has been “aggressive” in pushing the federal government to expand their program to little avail, the premier said.

“We asked them to fix it, they haven’t and now we’re stepping up,” he said. “I don’t want to sound overly whiny about this but … we didn’t get the program we needed at the time we needed it. (The federal government has) done a lot of great things in the last 14 months but this isn’t one of them.”

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The province was working on a provincial sick-leave program last summer and “we’ve taken those (plans) off the shelf,” Horgan said. “We’re looking at how to do it in a seamless way without putting more burden on businesses at a time when businesses can least afford it.”

Asked why it’s taken so long to launch a B.C. program considering the urgency created by the pandemic, Horgan said the government wants to ensure the program is delivered in a way that protects workers and doesn’t saddle businesses with additional costs.

“It’s not the resources that’s the issue, it’s the delivery of the program,” Horgan said. He said he’ll work with WorkSafeBC and Finance Minister Selina Robinson to develop the program.

The current federal program, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, has been criticized by labour groups who say the $500-a-week benefit, or $450 after taxes, for anyone sick with COVID-19 as an inadequate measure that fails to replace a worker’s full wages.

B.C. Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone said the government should have created a sick leave program a year ago.

“There’s thousands of workers who are putting their owns lives at risk and unnecessarily so, in part because the premier has broken his promise to ensure that sick pay is in place,” Stone said. “So we think that the province, John Horgan needs to come out with a program that covers COVID symptoms for workers in British Columbia during the pandemic with no burden on small businesses.”

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The virus continues to spread at B.C. businesses, which is an indication people are either spreading COVID while asymptomatic or because they’re going to work when they feel unwell.

Fraser Health has closed 43 businesses since April 17 due to COVID-19 transmission. This follows an April 9 order that allows the health authorities to direct WorkSafeBC inspectors to shut down non-essential businesses for at least 10 days if there has been COVID-19 transmission at the workplace.

Rob Gillezeau, an economist with University of Victoria, said the most efficient sick-leave program would be one that requires employers to automatically pay workers when they’re sick and then the employer is compensated by the government.

If the worker is forced to rely on the government to fill in their lost wages, the time lag in getting the money might create a disincentive to staying home while sick, Gillezeau said.

“Having an employer mandate makes it seamless,” he said. “You don’t go in and you still get compensated.”

Yukon created a paid sick-leave program in March that pays a rebate to employers that covers a maximum of 10 days of wages per employee.

Horgan said he doesn’t think Ontario’s proposal to double the $500 federal sick leave benefit with its own funding is the most effective way to deliver money to workers.

Ontario’s finance minister offered to top-up the federal government’s payment to eligible workers in the province, giving them up to $1,000 a week.

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However, Trudeau stressed that paid sick leave should be delivered directly through employers. Trudeau said Ontario should work through provincially regulated businesses to implement a sick-leave program, as his government did with federally regulated workplaces.

Horgan hopes B.C. can create a program that would extend beyond the pandemic.

“So we’re looking at not just (during) the pandemic but what can we do to protect workers and businesses,” he said. “We’re going to try and find a collaborative way to do that.”

Horgan said he’s sure most British Columbians have at one point dragged themselves out of bed and gone to work to “take one for the team.”

“What we’ve learned from COVID-19 is that’s not what we want,” he said. “We don’t want heroes. We want people who take care of themselves and who don’t put their colleagues and their customers and their businesses at risk.”

Greg D’Avignon, CEO of the Business Council of B.C. is supportive of a paid sick leave program but said during this public health crisis, that cost should not fall onto the backs of businesses, many of which closed or operated at limited capacity to help curb transmission.

“There is no disagreement by anyone in labour, in business or in government that if you have COVID symptoms, you should not come to work because you’re endangering fellow employees, business owners customers and the business itself,” ‘Avignon said. “Employers are already paying significant sums of money into health care, into WorkSafe and into unemployment insurance. So we’re doing more than our fair share despite controls and constraints of this public health crisis.”

with files from the Canadian Press 

kderosa@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/katiederosayyj

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