Being sick doesn’t always mean you get a sick day

Alberta workers take the least amount of sick days compared to the rest of the country, which could result in the spread of illnesses and decreased productivity in the workplace.

But labour and policy experts say these problems could be alleviated if the Alberta government mandated paid sick leave, something that is not included in the current legislation.

According to Statistics Canada, full-time workers in Alberta only took — on average — six days off of work due to illness in 2013, which was less than the national average of seven days. By comparison, the statistics were higher for other provinces, such as Newfoundland where workers took nine days off.

Mark Daku, a PhD student in the political science department at McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy, blames the low number of sick days taken by Albertans on the lack of the province’s sick leave legislation.

“While there is job protection in Canada for long-term illnesses and disabilities, there is very little job protection for short-term leave to address things like influenza. For example, in Alberta, there is no short-term job protection if an employee falls sick,” Daku said.

Jay Fisher, a spokesperson with Alberta’s Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, confirmed that there is no legislation for paid sick leave in Alberta, leaving the responsibility of sick leave policy up to the employers.

By comparison, some provinces do have legislation for sick leave. For example, the website for the Labour Relations Agency of Newfoundland and Labrador states that “an employee who has been employed with the same employer for a continuous period of 30 days is entitled to seven days unpaid sick or family responsibility leave in a year.”

“Access to sick leave is crucially important for employees, and leaving that decision in the hands of individual employers would result in some Canadians having access to sick leave and some not,” Daku said. He added that “employees may decline to take time off work when they are sick because they are afraid to lose their jobs.”Albertan workers are faced with a choice between health and job security

Photo by Andrea Fulton

That’s certainly been the experience of 22-year-old Fort McMurray resident Sasha Dolbenev, who was formerly an employee at a company that provides equipment for mining companies.

“I feel like I had to be hospitalized in order to stay home from work at my previous job,” Dolbenev said in an email interview.

Dolbenev highlighted money as the biggest factor that kept her from staying home from work when she was sick. But when she did go to work sick, she felt unproductive and was concerned about spreading her illness to others.

Gary Johns, a management professor at Concordia University, confirmed in an email interview that concerns about finances and job security — just like the ones Dolbenev expressed — are what usually cause people to go to work sick.

And when that happens, according to John, it puts the employees themselves, their coworkers and their clients at risk of further health issues.

For instance, a report from World Health Organization (WHO) supports the argument that weaknesses in sick leave policy can have drastic impacts on the community pointing to the H1N1 pandemic coupled with the 2009 economic crisis in the U.S. as an example.

The report states that during this period “an alarming number of employees without the possibility of taking paid sick leave days attended work while being sick. This allowed H1N1 to spread into the workplace causing infections of some seven million co-workers in the U.S. alone.”

Locally, Dobenev can relate to that statistic.

“I’ve had many encounters at work with people around me being sick,” Dolbenev said. “I worked with a woman who had laryngitis and another who had strep throat and they were still coming into work. This affected my performance and mental state because I was constantly trying to avoid them, as I did not want to get myself sick.”

Some employers may choose not to provide their employees with adequate sick leave, something Johns said has to do with a fear that employees might abuse the policy.

However, Daku believes that these employers are missing the point. A business loses money if employees aren’t working at their full potential and they can also spread that problem to others.

In addition, Canadian Labour Congress social and economic policy director Chris Roberts stated in an email interview that paid sick leave isn’t as costly as people may think it is.

For example, Roberts said the Parliamentary Budget Office found that, in the federal government, “paid sick leave accounts for a small fraction of departmental spending, ranging from 0.4 per cent to 2.7 per cent of total departmental expenditures.”

Nevertheless, the Alberta Employment Standards Code has not been revised to include sick leave policy since its formation in 1988.

But, according to Daku, the benefits of mandating sick leave in Alberta greatly outweigh the perceived consequences.

“Individuals would be healthier, the public would be better protected against outbreaks, workplaces would be more productive and profitable, and simply guaranteeing an individual’s right to sick leave is a cost-free policy.”