The children of Ontario are not all right. The tripledemic of influenza, RSV and COVID-19 is one of the worst pediatric crises our health system has faced.
Pediatric in-patient units and ICUs are operating well over capacity; wait times in emergency departments are at record highs and children are more sick than ever. There couldn’t be a better time for the Ontario government to finally legislate 10 permanent paid sick days for all workers.
As front-line health 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 health-care worker burnout. We have seen large volumes of patients come to the emergency department because they can’t access primary care. And now we are seeing waves of children, sicker than we have ever seen before, they and their parents desperate for care.
Much of this suffering is preventable. We know that paid sick days save lives, by reducing transmission in workplaces and schools. If parents have paid sick days, children can get care earlier, rather than in the emergency department. And paid sick days are good for the economy, by reducing workplace interruptions and allowing workers to recover and return to work.
By now, multiple health care experts and hospitals have called for paid sick days as a permanent measure to reduce the spread of many communicable illnesses. After immense pressure from workers and advocates, Ontario introduced The Worker Income Protection Benefit (WIPB) in April 2021 which provided three paid sick days for COVID-related reasons. This helped promote vaccination uptake. But with wave after wave of the pandemic, this temporary and inadequate program has been extended multiple times without actually adding any more days or making it permanent. As we witness a wave of respiratory viruses this season, lack of permanent paid sick days, combined with no isolation requirements, is pushing our already strained health-care system beyond its breaking point.
This surge of viral illnesses and their consequences is not going to end anytime soon: children in schools and child-care settings can get a new respiratory infection every few weeks. Pediatric providers are preparing for this surge of cases well into the winter. For children with compromised immune systems, disabilities and chronic medical conditions, a virus can be a severe illness. Being exposed to a peer with a mild runny nose or a cough at school because their parents could not afford to keep them home can mean dire consequences. Parents without paid sick days are forced to choose between going to work to putting food on the table, or staying at home with their sick child.
The caregivers of the children we see are now facing one of the worst affordability crises in four decades. Lack of paid sick days deepens financial stress for the lowest paid workers, and disproportionately impacts racialized and/or (im)migrant workers. For caregivers who are new to Canada, racialized or in low-income households, taking unpaid time off to get their child vaccinated could mean not making rent for that month. If adequate paid sick days are not put in place immediately, we will only worsen conditions for the most marginalized children and their families.
Once again, Ontario faces the choice to support workers, children and families, as the legislature is set to vote on Bill 4 — the Stay Home If You Are Sick Act — this week. This private member’s bill from the NDP’s Peggy Sattler would legislate 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 into law.
If our government wants to put children first, their families and caregivers need paid sick days now. Paid sick days save lives, protect our medically vulnerable and marginalized community members, and are crucial to supporting the health of essential and front-line workers and their families. With our pediatric health-care crisis and pre-existing inequity, it’s far beyond 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.