Does Ontario's paid sick leave go far enough?

The plan may be great for overall wellbeing, but what about employees who fall through the cracks?

Does Ontario's paid sick leave go far enough?

Late last month, the Government of Ontario announced an extension to their paid sick leave program – applicable to March 2023. And while it’s good news for employees worried about picking between their income and their wellbeing, does the proposed scheme really go far enough?

“The government will reimburse the employer for three days but the mandatory isolation period is five days – furthermore, it’s possible for an individual to catch COVID more than once,” explained Janet Candido, founder of Candido Consulting Group. “Under these scenarios, employers may have an individual coming to work while still sick because they can’t afford to lose the wages.

“A bigger issue with the program is that employees (or their families) get other illnesses that they should stay home for, however the government won’t reimburse the employer for an employee staying home with a cold, for example. This means that the employee will go into work and spread that virus around to their colleagues. The pandemic really made the public conscientious of spreading viruses and illnesses to others, so it’s important to continue with this mentality and provide alternative solutions for sick employees so they don’t have to choose between not getting paid or going into the office sick and getting others ill.”

Read more: The real reason your employees quit

And COVID isn’t employers’ only concern right now. The recent rise of hybrid colds are having a knock-on effect on employees and their work attendance. With Ontario gearing up for the winter months, and with them the inevitable peak in illnesses, employers really need to start considering upping their game when it comes to wellbeing leave.

“Many employees don’t have the luxury of paid sick days from their employer, so if they don’t work, they don’t get paid,” added Candido. “The lack of a paid sick day program disproportionately affects low-income workers. As many of these employees can’t afford to lose one or more days of pay, this will result in them going to work, risking the spread of the virus to their colleagues.

“When looking back to pre-pandemic days, there was one year throughout the winter where a cold virus made its rounds in my office. Most of us caught it two or three times that year. A reason being that many people didn't have enough sick days and couldn’t afford to have unpaid days while they were sick.”

As the past two years brought us the harsh reality of the global impact of a virus, it’s crucial to have a permanent sick day program to avoid spreading these viruses further and risk severe viral outbreaks such as COVID, where it brings on additional challenges such as business closures and travel disruptions.

Return to work policies

For HR leaders, the issue is less about ‘policy’ and more about overall wellbeing. If the pandemic taught us anything it’s that, in order to retain top talent, organizations need to be sincere in their health offerings. One-size-fits-all approaches aren’t enough for tired employees – and they certainly won’t help employers win candidates in the Great Reengagement. Flexibility is key here – as Candido suggests asking yourself these very important questions before blanket recalling staff;

  • Do employees really need to be in the office?
  • Do they need to be in the office full time? If not, can a hybrid approach work? 
  • How can we successfully implement a hybrid approach? I.e., assign in-office days, in-office by team or let employees choose.
  • What can you do to support employees returning to work?

“Employers need to remember that this has been a long period of disruption,” she explained. “Mentalities have changed so it’s a good idea to consider a staged return to the office to allow employees to build confidence and get them comfortable. Also, ask employees what it will take to make them comfortable coming back to the office and be flexible and prepared to make accommodations throughout.”

Making accommodations

If an employee is genuinely uncomfortable about return to the office, HR leaders should look at making some sort of accommodation. Look at rolling out flexible working schedules, take note of commuting fears, allow for more remote models – and most of all ensure that your workplace is up to health and safety codes.

Read more: Can HR spot signs that an employee is about to quit?

“HR and employers can implement a transition period that allows employees to ease back to the office,” Candido told HRD. “It’s also important to be completely open and transparent so employees trust you have their health and safety in mind. This means, continue to be diligent in enforcing the COVID protocols in place – be visible with the extra cleaning and masking requirements – and track the cases of employees who have tested positive and advise anyone who was in the office at the same time to self-monitor or test.”

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