By Alex Cosh
Critics are accusing the B.C. NDP government of hypocrisy as it recently introduced only five days of paid sick leave for workers while MLAs have no limit on the number of sick days they can take.
The Members’ Remuneration and Pensions Act states MLAs can take up to 10 days of absence during each legislative session without deductions to their basic compensation.
However, S.10 (2) of the Act states:
“For the purposes of this Act, a day must be considered a day of attendance at the session if on that day the member was
(a) unable to attend by reason of sickness or another reason approved by the Speaker.”
A day must also be considered a “day of attendance” if an MLA is away on government business or absent in another official capacity, according to the Act.
The Office of the Clerk, which administers the MLA attendence declaration process, confirmed to The Maple that this means days missed by MLAs due to sickness or other reasons approved by the Speaker are not counted as days of absence.
In other words, MLAs can effectively take as many paid sick days as they require, according to the Act.
However, the office noted, MLAs do not have access to other employment programs that many other workers are entitled to, including long-term disability leave and employment insurance.
Still, critics say the flexible sickness leave allowances for MLAs show there’s no reason why ordinary workers should not be granted at least 10 days.
Alex Hemingway, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told The Maple, “if that's the case, the government telling B.C. workers that five paid sick days are ‘good enough’ is not only contrary to the health and economic evidence, offside with public opinion and well short of the federal and international standards — it's also deeply hypocritical."
Asked about the discrepancy between sick leave allowances for ordinary workers and those for MLAs, Minister of Labour Harry Bains said in statement to The Maple:
“We listened to everyone’s perspective and developed a fair and balanced regulation. Five days is reasonable, given the challenges faced by both employers and workers. It supports the most vulnerable workers and at the same time is fair for businesses in the hardest hit sectors.”
Back in October, an open letter signed by 84 doctors, health experts and economists from across Canada called on the B.C. government to show “national leadership” by introducing 10 days of paid sick leave.
The signatories said 10 days is necessary to prevent workers being forced to choose between losing pay or going to work while sick and potentially spreading infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
Anna Gerrard, an organizer with the Worker Solidarity Network, which organizes on behalf of precarious workers in B.C., said it does not make sense for those in lower income brackets to receive fewer paid sick days than those with bigger paychecks.
“Assuming [workers] would abuse [paid sick days] is based entirely on stigma and class violence, not statistical fact,” Gerrard told The Maple. “Industry and business interests are still considered at-par with the wellbeing of our community health at-large when it comes to informing government priorities.”
Gerrard noted that federally regulated workplaces will soon have 10 days of paid sick leave.
As reported by The Maple last month, the B.C. government held public consultations asking if it should introduce three, five or 10 days of paid sick leave, with labour unions and health experts calling for 10, and business lobbyists calling for the legislation to be paused altogether.
When the five days were announced last week, labour organizers, including the B.C. Federation of Labour, pledged to continue fighting for 10.
In a public statement, B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau called on the provincial government to “explore moving to match other OECD countries” which typically provide 10 days of paid sick leave, and said the costs of the measure should not be placed on “already stretched business owners.”
The B.C. Liberals said the government, not businesses, should foot the bill for covering paid sick days.
Both the B.C. Liberals and B.C. Greens declined The Maple’s requests to comment on the fact that MLAs are legally entitled to unlimited paid sick days.
Alex Cosh is the managing editor of The Maple.