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Luke Stocking: Paid sick leave is a right, not a privilege

  • April 21, 2021

“Paid Sick Days.” This phrase keeps showing up in my social media and news feeds. Mostly it comes from Catholic social justice and labour union friends as well as from my local MPP (a member of the New Democratic Party). The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association has been calling for paid sick days in Ontario for some time as part of their COVID-19 advocacy. As far as I can see, they are the only significant Catholic institution that has been doing so. Does our Catholic faith support this position? Absolutely.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of work. Work is tied closely to the dignity of the human person. The Church condemns any ideology that “tries to reduce the worker to being a mere instrument of production, a simple labour force with an exclusively material value” (Compendium 271). So, not paying a worker because they cannot provide you with labour on a particular day because they are legitimately ill is immoral. 

The Church recognizes the rights of workers because their labour is more than a simple commodity to be bought or sold at the lowest price. While work has “objective significance” in that it consists of the production of things, it can never be separated from its “subjective significance.”  This comes from the fact work is always the expression of a person who has rights by virtue of their dignity. These rights include: the right to a just wage, the right to rest, the right to safety and “the right to insurance for old age, sickness and work-related accidents” (Compendium 301). Fortunately in Canada, our governments provide many of these rights through labour laws and employment insurance programs. But we can do better. 

The division of labour in our economy leaves some people more vulnerable than others. According to a report by Decent Work and Health Network, 70 per cent of Canadian workers making $25,000 a year or less have no access to paid sick days. Dr. Brooks Fallis is an ICU doctor at Brampton Civic. He was quoted in the Toronto Star criticizing government inaction on paid sick days saying, “they’ve done nothing to meaningfully protect them … they prioritized allowing those people who can stay at home to have non-essential goods made and delivered to them by people who end up in the ICU.” 

I can stay safely at home. Have I had any non-essential goods delivered to my home since the pandemic started? Yes. I also benefit from working for a Catholic organization that recognizes Church teaching on the dignity of labour and provides me with paid sick days. For me it is therefore a moral duty of solidarity to advocate for others to have the same rights that I enjoy. 

On the other hand, I understand the employer perspective of a small business. Our family farm employs agricultural workers. Providing paid sick days may not be a cost that a small business can handle easily. This, however, is not an excuse for the government to not legislate any sick days at all. There are solutions, including sick day subsidies from government.  

Paid sick days are a right that Ontario workers used to have. The previous government legislated two paid sick days a year (yes, just two). These were removed by Bill 47 in 2019. It would seem, contrary to Catholic Social Teaching, that paid sick days are a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege that is disproportionately given to those of a particular economic class whose labour is more valued by employers than others. 

From a Catholic perspective, paid sick days are not something we only give to people who “deserve it” because of the perceived value of their labour. It would be great to see more of us in the Church raising our voices to support those without paid sick days. Together as clergy, lay business leaders, employers and employees, we should be in solidarity with those who are being forced to make the choice between economic survival and the ICU. Join the call for paid sick days by writing your premier or your MPP, signing a petition or even just sharing an article that will show up in my social media feed. It is the Catholic thing to do.

(Stocking is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions for Development and Peace.)

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