Less than half of workers in Canada have employer-paid sick days, and it’s closer to a quarter for workers making less than $25,000 a year. Workers in lower-wage service jobs have been confronted with a terrible choice during the pandemic: isolate at the first sign of potential COVID-19 symptoms or exposure  and lose much-needed wages, or hope for the best and keep going to work.

There is overwhelming evidence that paid sick leave and paid quarantine leave are critical to stopping the spread of contagious illnesses. An independent commission that studied the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto found provincial compensation for people needing to quarantine was vital to stopping the spread of SARS. The commission recommended that governments have a plan to contain future outbreaks that ensured sick workers could stay home. A study of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic found that workers without paid sick leave were more likely to go to work while sick, causing an estimated seven million additional H1N1 infections in the United States.

Workplaces have been a source of infection throughout the pandemic in Canada, especially for low-wage workers in food processing, retail, personal care and cleaning services.. The Ontario region of Peel, a COVID hotspot in the second wave, has declared 218 workplace outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Peel has 80 per cent of the warehouse workers in the Greater Toronto Area, and almost half of the COVID cases stemming from workplace outbreaks in the region came from warehouses. A Peel Public Health study conducted between August 2020 and January 2021 found that 25 per cent of workers with COVID-19 symptoms went into work anyway.

Workplace discrimination has meant that Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers are more likely to be employed in low-wage service sector jobs. While there is no national data, Toronto Public Health has started collecting this information. The agency has found that people earning less than $30,000 per year are twice as likely to have had COVID-19 compared to the overall average, and that racialized workers are significantly more likely than white workers to have contracted COVID-19.

A recent Manitoba government report also highlights COVID-19’s unequal impact. It shows Black, Indigenous, Filipino, and South Asian people were over-represented in COVID-19 infections recorded between May and December 2020. The report’s authors link this outcome to the fact that workers in food processing, the service industry, and transportation made up more than half of all cases where they had information on occupation, and racialized people are more likely to work in these sectors or live with someone who does.

In the wake of SARS and H1N1, several US states and large cities did mandate that employers provide paid sick leave. Researchers found that having paid sick leave reduced seasonal influenza rates by up to 40 per cent compared to jurisdictions that didn’t have it. While Ontario temporarily added two universal paid sick days in 2018, they were quickly removed by the Ford government in 2019. No other substantial changes to paid leave were successful in any other province or territory.

Employers that push back on paid sick leave are ignoring many hidden costs. Workers who must come to work sick take longer to get better and spread contagious illnesses to other workers and customers. Everyone’s less productive when they’re sick, and the evidence shows sick workers are more likely to get into accidents at work or make other costly mistakes. Lack of sick leave also leads to higher employee turnover, resulting in higher training costs and lower productivity for employers.

Low-wage workers are less likely to have paid sick leave and are also less able to afford to take unpaid sick days. Unions, health care experts, and workers’ advocates are calling for governments to ensure that all workers have access to paid sick days, during the pandemic and after.