The Feminist Shift: Why Your Unpaid Sick Days are a Feminist Issue

The need for paid sick days—always, but especially now during a pandemic—has been on a lot of Ontarians’ minds. You’ve probably seen the calls from medical professionals, the Ontario science table, all chief public health officers, the labour movement, and basically everyone who has watched the numerous workplace-related outbreaks happen.  

Currently, 58 per cent of working Canadians do not have access to paid sick leave. For lower-wage industries, it soars to 70 per cent. A significant portion of the workers in these fields are women, particularly Black, Indigenous, women of colour, and women with disabilities. More often than not, their compensation is less than they’re worth, they have little job security, and often find themselves working in part-time roles which are least likely to provide paid sick leave.

In Waterloo Region, 72 per cent of all available part-time positions were held by women in 2019, meaning 36,700 women were working part-time compared to 14,600 men. We can safely assume a good majority of them don’t have access to the paid sick days they need to keep themselves and their families safe while not jeopardizing their economic security.

Amanda, a Feminist Shift supporter and resident of Waterloo Region, is one of these workers. Her story is likely familiar among many of you: she is a jill-of-all trades who works several part-time jobs by necessity in order to maintain the flexibility she needs in order to care for herself and her family. She is hyper aware of the importance of every hour of pay to her family’s budget.

“My managers at my work have always been good about suggesting I stay home if I’m sick. They’ve never pressured me to work when I’m not well. The problem is that if it’s a day with a lot of hours I just can’t afford to take the time off. I know it’s ‘just’ a part time job, but it’s the grocery money for my kids,” Amanda said. 

Being able to afford time off brings the issue full circle, lower-wage and part-time jobs are less likely to give workers access to paid sick days, but since these jobs bring in less income overall relative to full-time positions, there’s often almost no wiggle room in budgets to allow for any unpaid time off. And so, sick people go to work. 

“I’ve gone to work with vertigo so bad my husband had to drive me,” Amanda said. “I’ve gone to work with a fever. I’ve gone to work with a cold so bad I was embarrassed to be at my job. Sometimes, there is just no choice.”

The argument that part-time workers like Amanda should just switch to full-time work is popular in the paid sick days debate. But this is not a viable option for everyone. Consider that, on average, women in Waterloo Region lose almost 300% more working hours than men due to personal and family responsibility in a given year. Of course, there are many reasons why someone may work multiple part-time jobs—sometimes all that is available are bad, part-time jobs that allow employers to keep labour costs down through lower wages, no benefits or paid sick days, and thinning out staff shifts during slower periods of the work day. 

However, the fact remains that there are many women who are forced to “choose” a patchwork of part-time work in order to meet their families’ needs and also materially provide for them, and thereby forego any job security or access to paid sick days.

“I would switch to full-time,” Amanda said. “But because of the needs of my family, I just can’t. You have no idea how many times I have been told just to get a full-time job.”

So, why the hold up on paid sick leave? Especially now, when the lack of it is what thrust us into a brutal third wave of the pandemic? Why is it such a political hot potato, so politicized? One reason is  lobbyists.

Big Biz lobbyists have long fought hard against laws enforcing employer-paid sick days. They claim such provisions would cause great harms to small businesses—the proxy they like to use for this argument, since hearing a multi-billion-dollar corporation like any of the grocery chains make this argument would be both laughable and infuriating. They argue that such a law would cost the economy millions and will encourage workers to abuse the system. These fears are  unfounded and disproven in places like New York City, where paid sick leave legislation led to more than 91 per cent of businesses reporting no reduction in hiring, 97 per cent indicating they did not reduce hours and 94 per cent reporting not raising their prices.  

Perhaps it’s time we started noticing the punitive ways we structure the world of work—the way we believe workers should be grateful for any job instead of seeing it’s the employers who should be grateful for any labour. Perhaps that’s the tectonic shift required to end these absurd debates on what basic rights workers can expect from their employers.

Why shouldn’t workers be able to stay home when sick, without repercussions, without the fear of going hungry, inside a pandemic, but also outside of it?

“Access to paid sick days is a feminist issue and a matter of workplace justice,” said Anjum Sultana, YWCA Canada’s national director of public policy, advocacy and strategic communications and co-author of A Feminist Econonic Recovery Plan for Canada

“When we deny paid sick leave, in the midst of a pandemic no less, we are saying we value the labour of essential workers, but not their lives. Saying no to paid sick leave is condemning a largely feminized and racialized workforce to poor working conditions and putting the lives of essential workers at risk. Many of these workers are why our economy and society are chugging along. The least we can do to honour their vital contributions is ensure decent working conditions,” Sultana said.

It’s time this provincial government ends the game of hot potato. Paid sick days save lives, and not implementing the recommended 10 paid sick days (14 in a pandemic) is downright criminal negligence. 

There, we said it. 

Join the calls for paid sick leave: sign the petition demanding paid sick days now. 


This piece was written as part of our Feminist Data Story series that animates the data found in the Feminist Shift Data for Good Report that looks at gendered data and experiences in Waterloo Region.