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B.C. permanent sick leave program is a broad stroke – which province is next?

Adding the cost of an employer-paid sick leave program onto the shoulders of small businesses will lead to a setback on their path to economic recovery, writes Jeff Harris.


COVID-19 was again the major storyline for workplaces in 2021. (WavebreakMediaMicro/Adobe Stock)

The COVID-19 health crisis has brought on years of change and challenges in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business.

Staying competitive in this new business and economic environment requires new strategies and practices, often falling on legislative measures.

The pandemic has made it clear that everyone’s health and well-being is dependent on workers being able to stay home when they are sick, but the new British Columbia permanent sick leave program leaves room for concern, especially for small businesses.

In November 2021, B.C. became the first province in Canada to legislate a permanent paid sick leave program, which is being implemented in the new year and covers a minimum of five paid sick days. This was put in place officially on Jan. 1,and is for full- and part-time workers covered by the Employment Standards Act.

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B.C. implements guaranteed paid sick days for all workers, including part time

Although a five-day paid sick leave program is a good idea for companies in which taking time off is difficult, such as those on the front lines of the workforce, it has been a source of frustration for many small businesses.

The average B.C. small business is carrying $129,348 in COVID-19 related debt, and is estimated to take approximately 21 months to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

With all the current challenges small businesses are facing — dealing with a labour crisis, supply-chain issues, and a rise in food prices — this is just another expense on the back of entrepreneurs.

Close to half of B.C. businesses have expressed that it is going to take them a year or more to pay back their debt, and some are even concerned they cannot afford to repay the debt at all.

It is clear that there is a disconnect between the effective date proposed by the government for the paid sick leave program and the harsh reality that many B.C. businesses will be experiencing in the coming year.

Bearing the financial burden of this program will stunt the economic recovery of many small businesses, and some might even be forced to close. Since many businesses are still functioning at a lesser capacity, this is not the time to add more cost onto the plates of business owners.

Because it applies to part-time and casual workers, small businesses in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic — including hospitality and retail — have naturally expressed concern with the program, especially those that deal with seasonal ebbs and flows.

The fears associated with these government policies include not being able to fill shifts on short notice, a misuse of the program benefits by employees, and undifferentiated application to all types of employees.

Businesses are understandably worried about taking on added financial stress, as many of them are still experiencing the monetary aftermath of the pandemic.

Adding the cost of an employer-paid sick leave program onto the shoulders of small businesses will lead to a setback on their path to economic recovery. Unfortunately, this seems to be a typical approach of the government, to take a broad stroke approach to a problem, without ironing out the wrinkles among the different impacts to various industries.

It is clear that small and medium-sized businesses are not getting the support they deserve, and this will be one more huge cost that will hurt them.

In a market that is extremely competitive in attracting and retaining workers, there are few companies in which this broad-stroke policy approach will make much difference, as most companies competing for workers already have paid sick day or personal day programs equal to or exceeding five days per year.

If the government wished to improve the program to ensure all companies are not negatively affected, the government would be paying for the sick days directly, instead of shifting the burden completely upon employers. This doesn’t show support to the businesses that are trying to survive during these unprecedented circumstances.

Entrepreneurs in B.C. and across the country understand the importance of public health and have been quick to pivot their businesses to protect their staff and customers throughout the pandemic.

Despite many businesses still experiencing reduced revenues, labour shortages, and other operational challenges, a majority of businesses indicate that they would support the paid sick leave program if the costs were fully taken on by the government, with timely reimbursement.

Unfortunately, this is not the current reality of this swift legislative move by the B.C. government and is just the start of a larger movement.

The real question remains, how sustainable is this policy, will it come at the cost of closing down small businesses, and which province is next?

Jeff Harris is the CEO and founder of Impact Recruitment in Canada.

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