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‘Frank’ talk as O’Regan nudges provinces, territories on paid sick leave

Canada’s labour minister sounded a note of optimism on expanding paid sick leave Friday
Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan met with ministers responsible for the file in provincial and territorial governments on Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canada’s labour minister sounded a note of optimism on expanding paid sick leave Friday, even though a meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts ended without resolving a patchwork system of policies.

In late December, Parliament gave its approval to create 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers, who make up less than one-tenth of all workers in Canada.

Work on the regulations is set to begin early next month and invitations to join consultations on the issue were set to go out Friday just as Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan was meeting with ministers responsible for the file in provincial and territorial governments.

Before the meeting, O’Regan said he planned to listen to them on how such a policy could work in their jurisdictions, but also potential price tags for governments and employers.

Afterwards, O’Regan said in a tweet that the group had “a frank conversation, but a good one” and agreed to meet again in June on a host of issues related to the pandemic, including widespread labour shortages.

NDP labour critic Alexandre Boulerice called on the federal government to speed up the regulatory process, saying it was a crucial support needed for hundreds of thousands of workers.

“They have been dragging their feet since the beginning of the pandemic forcing workers to go to work sick or risk getting sick at work. It shouldn’t have to be this way,” he said.

O’Regan was similarly under pressure from one of the country’s largest labour organizations to push provincial and territorial governments harder toward replicating the federal policy.

But in making a public call for O’Regan and other labour ministers to create more paid sick days for workers who don’t already have them as part of their contracts, the Canadian Labour Congress noted another problem with sick-leave policies.

The organization’s president, Bea Bruske, said in a written statement that some provincial programs were underused by non-unionized staff, which was chalked up to pressure from employers.

O’Regan said he’s looking to get the federal policy enacted as quickly as possible, but noted it may take longer for workers to take the time, and employers to push for it, instead of toughing it out when sick.

“Therein lies the rub,” he said in an interview on the eve of the meeting. “How do you have certain standards in place and the mechanics in place, but at the same time allow some degree of flexibility?”

Finding that balance is something O’Regan identified in several areas he’s been tasked to deal with by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, including a federal policy on what’s known as the “right to disconnect.”

The concept is one that the government considered even before the pandemic to provide guidelines about how workers can digitally untether themselves from the workplace after hours, rather than always being connected to work emails and messages.

O’Regan’s predecessor was warned in the summer of an entrenched split between employer and labour groups who advised the government on the elements of policy.

In the final report released last month, companies pushed a voluntary framework and workers asked for a more mandated approach, a split that O’Regan said wasn’t surprising.

While the government sorts out its next steps, O’Regan suggested employers and workers may want to talk about an issue that the minister said has been exacerbated by the pandemic as more Canadians work remotely.

“It’s an initial good first step to encourage employers and employees to start talking in the workplace about a right to disconnect that may work for your workplace,” he said. “And at some point, the government is going to have to come in, because we said we would, on a policy, but I think we’re all suffering this.”

That strain on workers was something O’Regan had expected to discuss during Friday’s meeting as the Liberal government looks to add mental health to workplace safety regulations in the federal labour code.

– Jordan Press, The Canadian Press