Many Saskatchewan workers can’t take time off when they’re unwell. That’s not just unhealthy, it’s dangerous.
Labour Day | Stephen Whitworth | August 26, 2021
I don’t know about you but one of my favourite things is walking into a store, restaurant or coffee shop and seeing workers hacking their lungs out. Did I say favourite? I meant least favourite. Because there’s nothing like standing at a till across from some oozing, sneezing wretch who should be at home in bed with the TV on, the Kleenex handy and the chicken soup, crackers, ginger-ale and Nyquil ready on the nightstand.
Why aren’t they home? Why are they here, spreading their filth to innocent customers and their helpless, trapped co-workers?
It’s probably because they don’t see calling in sick as an option.
The problem is Saskatchewan hasn’t legislated sick days. Got the flu? You’d better be working somewhere that gives you days off. Down with a cold? Hope you can cover your shifts, because if you can’t you’ll have to dose-up on over-the-counter pills and syrups and get your butt into work. Think you might have Covid? Better not risk getting tested, because if you find out you do have it, you’ll be forced to take time off — and you need to work to make money to live.
For the moment, let’s leave Covid out of it. Even before a global pandemic reminded us all that life in Canada can be precarious, all anyone needed to do was take a step back and look at the status quo honestly. There’s only one conclusion: it obviously isn’t sensible. A sick worker who doesn’t stay home can infect co-workers, leading to a dripping, dragging, germ-spreading workplace. Obviously that cuts into productivity, which — if it’s a for-profit business — is going to hurt the bottom line.
And yes, sure. Lots of us have jobs that accommodate illness. There’s a good chance you, the reader, are one such lucky duck — you wake up in the morning with a nose full of slime goblins and lungs gurgling like a 1950s percolator, and you call your employer and tell them you won’t be in.
But many Saskatchewan workers aren’t so lucky. And without legislated sick days—without the legal right to stay home when they’re a plague rat — workers are going to bring their germs to work and share them.
It’s an unhealthy situation, and it needs to change.
Standing Up For Sick Days
Heading into Labour Day, legislated sick days are top of mind for Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Lori Johb.
“It’s something that’s critical coming out of the pandemic, there’s no question about that,” says Johb, a former health worker in long-term care facilities before the SFL. “And I don’t think the urgency has changed one iota since the beginning of the pandemic, and we need it more coming out of it.
“We also need it after the pandemic,” she says. “Paid sick time saves lives.”
The SFL has been calling for paid sick days for all Saskatchewan workers for some time, most recently on the July 19 “Grocery Heroes Day” which the union charges was designed by grocery chains and backed by politicians as a way to praise pandemic-hardened grocery staff “without actually doing anything to improve their working conditions or wages.”
Why are Saskatchewan unions calling for this? Why does the SFL insist workers need legislated paid sick days?
“So that people have the ability to put themselves first. So they can stay home when they’re ill, and not take that back to the workplace, and take the time they need to have a good recovery,” says Johb.
“But it’s also for their co-workers,” Johb says. “Years ago, health regions were putting in policies about attendance management. If you were at your level of sick time, you’d get called in and you’d get coached. But if you were at the limit and a co-worker comes in sick and gets you sick, you’d get in trouble.”
Of course, some workers are more vulnerable than others.
“Workers that are in precarious workplaces, I think the service industry is really big,” says Johb. “But I also think that frontline workers in any capacity, whether it’s a grocery store, a convenience store, late-night establishments… those are typically the folks who don’t have access to paid sick time. They also don’t have good wages, so they’re likely working minimum wage and likely working more than one job to make ends meet.
“And of course with the pandemic, that stopped for a lot of people — they weren’t able to work more than one job, so it had a double impact,” she says.
“There’s huge public support for employer-paid sick time,” says Johb. “Any polling they’ve done [shows that]. And I don’t know anyone comfortable going into any business that’s providing you a service where the person can’t go home [if they’re sick].”
If paid sick days are popular and critically important, why on earth hasn’t Saskatchewan legislated them?
“Well, this is something we’ve seen come up with the federal election,” says New Democrat MLA Carla Beck, referring to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent vow to establish them for all federal workers. “And I think this is one of those things that’s re-entered the public view because of the pandemic.
Beck is the Opposition Saskatchewan NDP’s critic for Labour.
“I’ll let those who stand in opposition to sick days present their reasons but I think what we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic for sure is how important it is for people who are sick to be able to do what is right and safe in terms of public health measures, and stay home while they’re contagious,” says Beck.
“We’ve heard, unfortunately, of lots of stories of workers — often in low-wage sectors, which happen to coincide with workers who don’t have sick days — having to choose between doing what they know is right in terms of isolating and testing, and paying their rent,” says Beck. “The reality of the last year and a half has really highlighted the importance of workers being able to stay home when they’re sick — inside and outside of a pandemic.”
A few months back Beck’s fellow MLA and associate Labour critic Jennifer Bowes introduced Bill 603 to establish paid sick days in Saskatchewan — 14 days during the current pandemic emergency, 10 when things return to normal. It’s unlikely, however, that the government will pass an Opposition bill.
The Saskatchewan New Democrats also have a petition calling for paid sick days on their website, saskndp.ca.
Though there’s no indication Government legislation is forthcoming, Beck says legislated paid sick days are important. And frankly, it’s hard to argue.
Because every day that workers feel like they have to take their sniffles, sneezes and symptoms to work, Saskatchewanians are at risk.
“As we stand on the cusp of this fourth wave that no one wanted, if workers feel they don’t have the ability to stay home when they need to or perhaps have symptoms of Covid, we risk further outbreaks, as we’re starting to see now,” says Beck.
“I think we also risk continued low rates of vaccination. I’ve heard from a number of frontline employees that indicates inability to get time away from work or fear of being sick [with no sick time] after the vaccine has added to people’s hesitancy,” she says. “It’s almost twofold — people delay getting the vaccine because they can’t take time off work if they get sick, and they avoid isolating or getting tested.
“We risk an increased threat of the variants and another lockdown potentially,” she says.
I think we can all agree 18 months of pandemic is quite enough. It’s time to listen to the labour movement and legislate paid sick days in Saskatchewan.