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Debate over paid sick leave heats up in N.B.

June 12, 2024
The Canadian Press


New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government has released a long-awaited report on sick leave that provides several options spanning the gamut from doing nothing to introducing 10 paid sick days.

But the Liberal and Green opposition says the government purposely kept the report under wraps for so long because it wanted to please businesses and discourage public debate.

The 16-page report prepared by staff from the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour was tabled by Attorney General Ted Flemming in the legislature on June 5, without comment.

Greg Turner, the minister responsible for labour, told Brunswick News he didn’t want to make any changes without falling in line with other provinces.

As it stands, all New Brunswick workers are entitled to five sick days if they’ve worked at least 90 days with an employer. But they are unpaid.

Only three provinces – British Columbia, Quebec and Prince Edward Island – have legislated paid sick leave. Turner wants the other seven provinces to agree on a universal system before making any changes because he wants businesses across the country to have a level competitive field.

“Clearly there’s no consensus on this, based on the findings in the report,” Turner said in an interview last week, noting that his staff had consulted business, labour and other organizations that don’t see eye to eye on the issue. “We don’t have plans to pursue legislative amendments at this time because there’s no clear path forward.”

Turner and other provincial labour ministers met in April when the topic of paid sick leave came up, but there was little agreement on what should be done. The minister said another meeting will likely be held this fall, and the topic will be on the agenda once again.

The opposition said the government’s inaction on sick leave made them sick to their stomachs.

“For the last six, seven, eight months, the Conservatives sat on their hands and did nothing,” said Liberal opposition critic Marco LeBlanc in an interview. “They’re coming out with a report that still has no action, still has no decision. It’s been a recurring problem with the Higgs government. They do reports and reviews, but actions are little.”

LeBlanc said if the Liberals win power in the provincial election, which must be held by Oct. 21, they’d put some form of paid sick leave into law, although they haven’t decided the right number of days yet.

The latest poll shows the Tories and Liberals running neck and neck.

In P.E.I., a law was recently passed that will see workers receiving one day of paid leave after 12 months of service, two days the next year and three days after three years of service.

In Québec, workers are eligible for two days after three months of uninterrupted service for sickness or family responsibility, and in British Columbia, employees are eligible for five days per year after 90 days of employment.

Federally regulated businesses must provide employees with up to 10 days of paid medical leave per year.

David Coon, leader of the opposition Green party, wants New Brunswick to follow Ottawa’s model.

On Dec. 6, 2022, he introduced a private member’s bill that would have provided New Brunswick workers with up to 10 paid sick days each year, provided they’d been employed for more than 90 days.

The proposed law also called for the creation of temporary financial support, funded by taxpayers, to help employers provide paid sick leave.

The bill was debated on second reading and referred to the all-party standing committee on law amendments for review. After hearing from several groups in February 2023, the committee then referred the bill back to bureaucrats for further review and consultation.

The Canadian Federation for Independent Business told the government its members in New Brunswick were overwhelmingly against being mandated to offer paid sick days. Businesses would rather make the decision themselves to offer sick time, as a hiring incentive.

However, the study also showed that there was inequity between low-income and wealthier workers.

“Many low-wage workers do not have access to any form of paid sick leave,” it stated. “This can lead to individuals having to make decisions between reporting to work while ill or not having enough income to meet their needs.”

The report noted that data from 2016 showed that only 21 per cent of workers in New Brunswick making less than $25,000 annually had access to paid sick leave, while 61 per cent of workers making $75,000 or more had access to paid leave, through private insurance.

The staff also said studies showed mandatory paid sick leave wouldn’t hurt businesses that badly.

“Evidence from the U.S. also suggests that paid sick leave correlates with higher employee morale and job satisfaction, higher employee retention and higher profitability,” the report states. “Employers are concerned about the potential cost increases that would occur with paid sick leave requirements. Most data points to a relatively small increase to operating costs as a result, which are often offset by the benefits produced by paid sick leave: improved productivity by a healthier workforce.”

But the report languished after being submitted to the minister in charge in December, who at the time was Arlene Dunn and has since quit politics.

“It’s says December 2023 on the report,” said a frustrated Megan Mitton, a Green MLA, in an interview. “The Conservatives have been sitting on it for five months, they had a lot of time to figure out what their position was and make recommendations, and they haven’t done that. Through their inaction, they’re making a choice to maintain the status quo.”

Turner, who took over from Dunn in February, said he wasn’t entitled to release the report because the all-party committee of the legislature had commissioned it. He said it would have been up to the two opposition parties to ask the committee chair – Flemming – for another meeting to be held to ask for the report to be released.

Upon hearing Turner’s take, Coon rejected it. He showed Brunswick News a letter he sent to Flemming on March 6, asking him to convene a meeting to discuss the report. That never happened.

Coon’s colleague Mitton said the sad part was workers were being left behind.

“I’m extremely disappointed. I think they’re letting down the citizens of New Brunswick, the workers of New Brunswick, by not ensuring that they have the right to paid sick days. It’s a failure of the government.”


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