Ahmed and Shokr: Make proper paid sick leave an election issue, Ontario

A fully accessible sick-leave program is what we need to end this pandemic and prevent the spread of future diseases

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The June 2 provincial election in Ontario will be the first to take place after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last two years have given Ontarians an in-depth look into the existing gaps in the health-care and labor systems. Notably, the debate over paid sick leave became front and centre. Whether in Parliament, legislatures, among public health experts or at the dinner table, the call for a comprehensive paid sick-leave program is impossible to ignore.

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The Ontario Medical Student Association (OMSA) wants to echo this call.

Some will note that the government of Ontario announced that its paid sick-leave program would be extended to July 31. However, that program leaves much to be desired. Just three days have been approved for each ill worker, despite the fact that isolation for COVID-19 takes at least five to 10 days.

This encourages employees to return to work despite feeling sick, as time taken off beyond the three days can result in lost wages, especially for hourly workers. This can cause the spread of disease throughout the workplace and may cause workers to delay seeking medical care until urgently needed. Urgent treatment may be more costly relative to the health-care system when symptoms initially presented.

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OMSA, representing Ontario medical students, is asking voters to support a comprehensive paid sick-leave program that encompasses the following five principles, outlined by the Decent Work and Health Network:

Universal. All workers will be eligible for this program without exemption on the basis of size of workplace, type of work, or immigration status.

Paid The program must be completely paid to prevent workers from being financially penalized for adhering to public health advice.

Adequate. The program should provide workers with at least seven paid sick days and an additional 14 extra days for public health emergencies.

The Ontario Federation of Labor previously showed that 80 percent of surveyed Ontarians support a longer paid sick-leave program. Workers will have a chance to recover from disease without fear of wage loss, and seek care when symptoms present, rather than when the condition has evolved into being urgent.

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Permanent The program will remain in place during the COVID-19 pandemic and into the future. A permanent program can help reduce the spread of infectious diseases other than COVID-19. By reducing the spread of disease, we keep the public safe, and ensure our hospitals are not overburdened by patient numbers.

COVID-19 will likely not be the last pandemic Ontarians face, and a permanent program can help us prepare for the next one.

Accessible. There can be no barriers to accessing this program, such as employer mandated sick notes. The program needs to mandate that income is not disrupted and can provide flexible leave.

For two years, we have been told that to beat COVID-19, it will take all of us. That every one of us has a responsibility to think about and help safeguard the health of others. On several fronts, Ontarians have succeeded. We have been largely united to combat misinformation, deliver vaccines, physically distance, wear masks and ultimately care for one another.

To end the pandemic, prepare for the next pandemic, and improve our labor sector and health-care system such that no disease can have the impact that COVID-19 had, we need to be united again. We must collectively ask our politicians to support a comprehensive paid sick-leave program.

Abrar Ahmed and Hisham Shokr are medical students at Western University, and members of the Ontario Medical School Association. Twitter: @AbrarAhmed628; @ShokrHisham

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