What day of work are we paying for?

I don’t need legislated paid sick days. I’ve worked from home for a decade and my husband’s employer has been flexible when necessary. For most people in our position it would be easy not to see the need for a change in provincial policy if it weren’t for one thing: the classroom flu outbreak that claimed our son’s life on May 6th, 2016.

Despite having done everything we could to protect our family, including every vaccination on schedule, we were vulnerable after Jude failed to develop immunity from his flu shot, and infection spread in our community. One sick kid in a classroom quickly became a classroom full of sick kids who each took it home, leading to extended absences, hospitalizations, and one dead child.

Jude had been a hilarious, loving, trouble-making two year old. He was always perfectly healthy, and the only indication of his illness was a low-grade fever hours before he died of cardiac arrest caused by influenza B. What would look mild to anyone claimed his life in an instant.

Jude’s death brought many questions. How could something that seems so innocuous have killed him? What more could we have done? Like COVID-19 now, everyone who gets the flu gets it from someone else. How many people had it before it reached our home in May? What if just one of them had made a different choice to break the chain, and could have stopped the flu from passing on to someone else? To our home?

In the time after learning Jude’s cause of death I spent my days speaking with doctors, nurses, infectious disease experts, and even our coroner to try to better understand. I was shocked to learn that ~3500 Canadians die from the flu every year, and in Ontario alone ~5000 are hospitalized. In the shadow of COVID-19 these numbers almost seem small, but that’s a lot of people dying from an illness we can prevent through vaccination, hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick.

3500 lost lives every year. 3500 families like mine, with an empty chair at the table and the deafening silence of a lost loved one. We’re now at nearly 8000 COVID-19 deaths in Ontario alone.

In 2017 the previous Liberal government passed Bill 148 giving, among other new worker rights, two paid sick days to every worker in Ontario. It was a significant step towards reducing illness in our communities. On November 15th, 2018, I testified at Queen’s Park as the current government planned to strip those two paid sick days back with Bill 47.

I shared what happened to Jude, and also spoke about growing up with a mom who was a young widow, raising two kids on minimum wage, and the difficult situation she’d be in if someone was sick and she needed to be home. I spoke about my life as a student, putting myself through university on loans and every minimum wage hour I could work, and how a missed shift due to illness might mean missing groceries or rent, or losing my job. I’d go to work sick because I didn’t have a choice.

Today 58% of Canadians don’t have paid sick days, and this primarily affects people who earn a lower income or are precariously employed. At a time when income isn’t keeping up with cost of living, this puts too many people here in Ontario in a position I’m familiar with. Where I live in Peel, 1 in 4 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 went to work sick because they didn’t have a choice.

As a small business owner, I know how vital it is, now more than ever, to be mindful of burdens placed on businesses struggling through the pandemic. We must protect both lives and livelihoods, and we’ll never be able to reopen safely or sustainably without keeping community transmission under control. It’s time to address this properly with provincially legislated seamless paid sick days to enable people to stay home when they need to. This protects businesses from illnesses in their workplaces, and our communities from preventable spread.

A person’s life is worth more than a day of work.

Every person’s life is worth more than a day of work. We need our government to recognize that and act with the urgency this pandemic calls for. It’s been more than a year and we’re still having this conversation.

Public health is about all of us. Illness in workplaces is illness in communities and classrooms. An essential worker going to work sick might feel like a distant problem if it isn’t something you need to deal with, but these essential workers have gone to work for us every day to ensure so many of us can stay safe. Essential should mean valued. We should fight for paid sick days for every worker because they’re people, and their lives and families are important. And we should fight for them because we can’t know when someone’s sick day might save someone we love. We’re more connected than we realize, and we only get through this together.