Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Paid sick leave and cost transfers

Last week, the Toronto Star ran a story about how lack of paid sick leave provisions affects workers health. Currently, Ontario workers are entitled to unpaid sick leave, although employers with fewer than 50 workers (i.e., most employer) aren’t required to provide any such leave.

This leaves 1.6 million Ontario workers with no access to employer-paid sick leave. Many must keep working (to the detriment of their health) in order to pay their bills:
What began as a scrape quickly festered into a hand infection, a wound that would have easily healed if the low-wage Toronto dishwasher didn’t have to keep dunking it in dirty water. But without access to a paid sick day, Dr. Kate Hayman says her patient had no option but to keep working.
One way to look at this arrangement is as a cost transfer. Employers who don’t provide paid sick days, transfer the cost of injuries and illness (often the result of work) onto workers, who will work while sick and often become more sick. 

This, in turn, transfers costs to the taxpayers, who must fund medical services for these (now) sicker workers, workers who must often access care through expensive acute-care facilities because they cannot take time off to visit a medical clinic during normal working hours.

Workers in Alberta are in a similar boat as employers are not required to provide paid sick leave. Many will, but those who don’t are often (in my experience) the employers of the most vulnerable workers. Employers don't need to directly pressure these workers to work while sick--the low wages paid by the worker do this for the employer. Further, while employers cannot legally terminate workers for being sick, most workers have no meaningful remedy if an employer does do.

There is also a gendered dimension to this. Women are disproportionately responsible for child- and elder-care. While there are statutory provisions and financial support (via Employment insurance) for providing care in the cases of serious illness, there is no statutory recognition of the day-to-day challenges when a parent falls at the grocery store and bangs his head or a child comes down with the flu. The financial and career costs of managing these family responsibilities often fall to women.

It may be time for Alberta to consider remedying these gaps in the legislation through paid sick leave and family responsibility leave.

-- Bob Barnetson

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