Paid Sick Leave

I’ve been meaning to discuss District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald’s attempt to get CBRM council to pass a motion in support of paid sick days since he first made it at the February 23 council meeting but I haven’t been able to do the necessary research until this week.

MacDonald moved, during the Proclamations and Resolutions portion of that meeting, that mayor and council write to the Premier, the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, and all CBRM MLAs in support of “updating the Labour Standard Codes to enshrine (10) paid sick days.” I happen to have the full text right here:

Paid Sick Days Motion, CBRM

Ten paid sick days would be a quantum leap in this province, which currently legislates three unpaid days.

There was some initial discussion of the motion, which echoes a policy advocated by the provincial NDP, but council ultimately punted discussion to the March 23 meeting on the grounds that it needed more information on the subject. I’m going to end the suspense by telling you that council first tried amending the motion to replace “ten (10) paid sick days” with “paid sick days,” but the amendment was defeated. It then voted on the original motion, which was also defeated, the only councilors voting in favor being Gordon MacDonald, Lorne Green (District 12) and Darren O’Quin (District 11).

Councilors had two main concerns with the motion:

  1. Small businesses cannot afford it.
  2. Council cannot be seen supporting legislation proposed by a provincial opposition party.

I’m going to deal with the second concern first.

I find it a strange principal for a council to stand on, given that it boils down to: we cannot support any idea advocated by a political party for fear of being seen as partisan.

Paid sick days are intended to help workers, particularly low-wage, front-line workers, not the political party (or parties) advocating for them. That’s a concept municipalities in Ontario seem to have come to grips with, judging by the headline on this January iPolitics story: “Ontario mayors join opposition in demanding paid sick days.”

But this was not the real reason CBRM council refused to support the paid sick days motion, the real reason was concern that small businesses would not be able to afford them, and that is the real subject of today’s article.

 

Taking care of business

I think anyone watching CBRM council discuss the issue must have been struck, as I was, by the fact that no councilor felt it necessary to go out and speak to workers about the issue. Every councilor who reached out to constituents reached out to constituents who owned small businesses. One councilor, District 10’s Darren Bruckschwaiger, spoke as the former owner of three small businesses (employing 13 people).

That reminded me that businesses are permitted to make campaign donations during CBRM elections — something no longer permitted in HRM — and some current councilors did very well by that arrangement.

Look at Bruckschwaiger’s list of donors:

Darren Bruckschwaiger 2020 donors

 

Or District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch’s:

CBRM District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch 2020 donors

Both mayoral candidates — Cecil Clarke and Amanda McDougall — owed a huge debt of gratitude to business donors, it’s just that the winner, McDougall, owed it to one — Annette Verschuren, she of the $20,000 donation — while the loser, Clarke, owed it to a wide swath of the municipality’s businesspeople.

Is it any wonder, then, that some councilors see the terms “constituents” and “small business owners” as interchangeable?

 

Mom & Pop & 250 Employees

District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, who seemed ready to support an amended motion, also suggested council invite someone from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) to speak to them (read: to tell them why paid sick days are a bad idea).

John F Bulloch

John F. Bulloch

As Councilor Gordon MacDonald pointed out, the CFIB has a long history of opposing any legislation designed to help workers. (They don’t like paying Canada Pension Plan premiums, or Employment Insurance premiums and they oppose a $15 minimum wage.)

The organization was founded in 1971 by one John F Bulloch, a teacher at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and small business owner. In the words of the CFIB:

It began in a bathtub.

One evening in 1969, John Bulloch, a teacher at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, was soaking in his tub and reading the new federal White Paper on taxation. He was livid. The federal government had proposed a 50% tax rate for Canadian small businesses.

Too much information, CFIB.

The group claims 95,000 members nation-wide, including 3,900 in Nova Scotia. There is no member directory, so I can’t tell you which small Nova Scotian businesses belong to the CFIB, although Christina Pace, owner of the Rodd Grand Yarmouth and “other Nova Scotia properties” is a board member. I can tell you, based on some cocktail napkin math, that the organization is well-funded. Membership costs a minimum of $30 per month, plus $3 per employee or owner. That means each member must pay at least $396 per year which, multiplied by 95,000, gives you $37.6 million. (Again, that’s the minimum, the actual number must be much higher.)

While the CFIB sometimes claims to represent “small and medium-sized” businesses, its “About Us” page declares emphatically that it is “the country’s champion of small business.” That said, the term “small business” is very flexible. Look at the breakdown the CFIB provides of its membership — the implied definition here is that small businesses employ from 1 to “50+” people:CFIB No. of Employees

Elsewhere, you get a hint as to what that “+” could represent. On the “Become a Member” page, the CFIB asks: “Have more than 250 employees?”

The organization also offers “group discounts” to franchisors or associations with “more than 20 businesses” in their groups.

This is significant, because when the phrase “small business” is invoked, most people do not think of a business employing over 250 people or a franchisor with over 20 franchisees. Most people think of Mom and Pop operations, with a handful of employees.

And, of course, the CFIB wants you to think of Mom and Pop operations because they are much more sympathetic than larger businesses or franchisors, which means the Mom and Pops effectively provide cover for the larger businesses.

When you oppose paid sick days on the grounds that Mom and Pop operations can’t afford them, you also let the owners of grocery store chains and multiple long-term care facilities off the hook.

 

CERB

But let’s focus for a moment on actual small businesses.

If you can’t afford to pay an employee a living wage, or sick days; if you find EI and CPP premiums onerous; can you actually afford to have an employee?

I’ve listened to a couple of interesting podcasts on the issue of small business this past week, starting with this episode of the Alberta Advantage podcast which directed me to this episode of  the Citations Needed podcast. One of the guests on Citations Needed was Bryan Quimby of Street Fight Radio (yet another podcast) who explained that he and his partner did everything themselves until they could afford to pay someone $20/hour to work for them.

But too many small business owners seem to think they have a right to workers, whether or not they can pay them adequately or provide them sufficient hours or ensure their safety. This attitude is perhaps best exemplified by a 16 July 2020 CFIB news release, which said too many workers were opting to take the $2,000/month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) rather than returning to their jobs. The list of reasons people gave for not returning to work included:

  • They are concerned about their own physical health or that of their family (47%).
  • They are concerned about childcare obligations (27%).
  • They do not feel there are enough hours or work available (16%).
  • They are concerned about taking public transportation (7%)

The CFIB apparently did not consider any of these to be valid concerns, because its recommendation — just four months into the pandemic — was that the federal government should increase the wage subsidies available to businesses while requiring CERB recipients to “be available and looking for work, and ensuring benefits stop if a worker is offered a new job or their old job back, unless they or a family member are sick.”

The CFIB, in case you haven’t noticed, is beyond shameless. Just read the opening sentences of this fawning BNN Bloomberg profile of the organization’s president, Dan Kelly, published just days ago:

The moment Dan Kelly knew something was amiss was the chilly February day he walked into a popular dim sum restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ont., and immediately got a table.

The head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), and the most vocal proponent for Canada’s small businesses, usually waits for a half-hour before getting served at Shanghai Dim Sum – widely known for its soup dumplings. But instead of being greeted by a healthy din and bustle of patrons, the restaurant was mostly empty, he recalled in a recent conversation.

One month later, as COVID-19 began shutting the world down last year, Kelly found himself doing TV and print interviews from his family’s 600-square-foot vacation condo in Florida, reminding Canadians to not give up on small businesses — even though no one had any clue what a COVID future would look like.

Did you catch that? He knew something was up in February BUT HE STILL WENT TO FLORIDA (although we’re clearly meant to understand that he was not living high on the hog, but slumming it in a mere 600-square foot vacation condo).

The piece ends this way, capturing the massive contradiction at the heart of the CFIB:

Even though he’s not a fan of business subsidies in general, Kelly wants governments to keep supporting small businesses until this pandemic is over. And if they don’t, he’ll probably work the phones (or Zoom meetings) – still not taking no for answer.

 

Essential workers

Writing about sick days in the Nova Scotia Advocate, Robert Devet noted:

The working poor are suffering the most, 74% of workers earning less than $25,000 lack paid sick days. Politicians like to call these workers essential and heroes when the camera is rolling, but look the other way when it comes to action.

A disproportionate number of these workers are racialized. Women not only disproportionately provide care, but they are more likely to report losing wages to care for others, including their children and families when they fall ill.

During the March 23 discussion of sick days, District 12 Councilor Lorne Green cited these statistics in explaining to council why he would support the motion. District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald (whose main campaign donation came from a union, CUPE) noted that there was probably no one around the council table who didn’t enjoy paid sick days and argued that all workers should have them (he also suggested that if CBRM council wants to consider itself “progressive” this is precisely the kind of motion it should be supporting). District 11 Councilor Darren O’Quinn didn’t explain why he voted in favor of the motion but he voted in favor of the motion.

But it wasn’t enough, and it was defeated by a resounding 10 to 3.

I knew it was doomed, actually, from the moment District 8 Councilor James Edwards called it a “noble” effort. My working theory is that declaring something “noble” is the kiss of death in municipal politics.

Featured photo courtesy of the OAG for the District of Columbia.