Suleman, McLaren: To help sick children, give caregivers paid sick leave

This wave of viral diseases and their consequences are not going to end anytime soon. Queen’s Park must act.

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Ontario children are not doing well. The tripledemic of influenza, RSV and COVID-19 is one of the worst pediatric crises our healthcare system has ever faced.

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Pediatric care units and intensive care units are operating well beyond their capacity; emergency department wait times are at record highs and children are sicker than ever. There couldn’t be a better time for the Ontario government to finally legislate 10 permanent paid sick days for all workers.

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As frontline healthcare workers, we have seen wave after wave of COVID-19 disproportionately affect low-income and racialized communities. We have seen wave after wave worsen the pre-existing crisis of hallway medicine and healthcare worker burnout. We have seen a large number of patients coming to the emergency room because they do not have access to primary care. And now we see waves of children, sicker than we have ever seen before, them and their parents desperately seeking care.

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Much of this suffering is preventable. We know paid sick leave saves lives by reducing transmission in workplaces and schools. If the parents have paid sick leave, the children can be cared for earlier, rather than in the emergency department. And paid sick leave is good for the economy, reducing work disruptions and allowing workers to recover and return to work.

Currently, several health care experts and hospitals have called for paid sick leave as a permanent measure to reduce the spread of many communicable diseases. After immense pressure from workers and advocates, Ontario introduced the Workers’ Income Protection Benefit (WIPB) in April 2021, which provided three paid sick days for COVID-related reasons. This has helped promote the uptake of vaccination. But wave after wave of the pandemic, this temporary and inadequate program has been repeatedly extended without actually adding extra days or making it permanent. As we witness a surge of respiratory viruses this season, the lack of permanent paid sick leave, combined with the lack of isolation requirements, is pushing our already strained healthcare system beyond its breaking point.

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This wave of viral illnesses and their consequences are not going to stop any time soon: children in schools and daycares can contract a new respiratory infection every few weeks. Pediatric service providers are preparing for this surge of cases well into the winter. For children with weakened immune systems, disabilities and chronic illnesses, a virus can be a serious illness. Being exposed to a peer with a mild runny nose or cough at school because their parents couldn’t afford to keep them at home can have disastrous consequences. Parents without paid sick leave are forced to choose between going to work to put food on the table or staying home with their sick child.

The carers of the children we see are now facing one of the worst affordability crises in four decades. The lack of paid sick leave compounds the financial stress of lower paid workers and has a disproportionate impact on racialized and/or (im)migrant workers. For caregivers who are new to Canada, racialized or in low-income households, taking unpaid leave to get their child vaccinated could mean not paying rent for that month. If adequate paid sick leave is not implemented immediately, we will only worsen conditions for the most marginalized children and their families.

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Once again, Ontario must make the choice to support workers, children and families, as the Legislative Assembly is due to vote this week on Bill 4 – the Stay at Home Act if you are sick. This private member’s bill from NDP’s Peggy Sattler would provide 10 permanent paid sick days for all workers, plus an additional 14 days during public health emergencies. As we have done countless times before, we implore our politicians to finally heed the science and choose to protect Ontarians by passing Bill 4.

If our government is to put children first, their families and caregivers need paid sick leave now. Paid sick leave saves lives, protects medically vulnerable and marginalized members of our community, and is essential to supporting the health of essential and frontline workers and their families. With our pediatric health care crisis and pre-existing inequities, it is way over time for the government to legislate 10 permanent paid sick days for all.

Dr. Shazeen Suleman is a pediatrician. Dr. Jesse McLaren is an emergency physician. Both are based in Toronto and are members of the Decent Work and Health Network.

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