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The federal government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the largest union representing federal workers, will exchange documents this month ahead of a court battle over proposed reforms to sick leave. For over a year, sick leave has been at the centre of contentious contract negotiations.
Officially, the government supports continuing the bargaining process, but in May gave itself the power, through budget implementation Bill C-59, to impose its plan regardless of the negotiations' outcomes.
As well, earlier this month, Canada's 17 public service unions filed a complaint over Bill C-59, arguing that, by circumventing the bargaining process it violates the right to collectively bargain. Filed through the Canadian Labour Congress and Public Service International with the UN International Labour Organization, it comes after the Charter challenge before Canadian courts that was launched earlier this year.
"...[W]e are doing everything we can to stop the Conservative government from gutting our members' sick leave protection and eroding our fundamental Charter right to free collective bargaining," Robyn Benson, PSAC National President, told rabble.ca.
"We are currently fighting in the courts against Bill C-59 and have filed an injunction application to ensure that the government does not override our bargaining rights before our day in court," she said.
A court date has been set for October 29, while the Justice Robert Beaudoin has ordered the government to give five working days' notice if it intends to implement its sick leave plan. The unions' written arguments are due by October 9, while the government's are due by October 19 -- election day.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement had previously expressed a desire to have a deal in place before the October 19 election, though imposing it may violate Canada's caretaker convention (the norm of restraint during an election period).
Currently, many federal civil servants are able to accumulate (or 'bank') unused paid sick days. The government wants to end that practice, abolish much of the existing accumulated sick leave and lower the number of paid sick days from 15 to six.
The government also favours the private administration of its short-term disability plan. Sick employees, after using up all six paid sick days, would have to apply to a third party insurance company for short-term sick days. A seven-day unpaid waiting period would then commence, though previous Treasury Board proposals would waive the waiting period in cases of hospitalization.
The changes have come under fire from federal unions generally, with Canada Post's union noting that no savings were realized when a similar plan was implemented for its workers.
In July, a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) found that federal employees' sick leave costs were minimal, attributing it largely to the fact the federal workers often do not need to be immediately replaced when calling in sick and typically complete their work upon returning.
In 2014, the PBO also found the government's stated numbers on sick leave use inaccurate, and that workers used an average of 11.5 paid sick days, not 18 as Clement had claimed.
PSAC has attempted to engage workers and publicize stories of those who have benefited from the existing plan. Videos of workers who have undergone chemotherapy or surgery, live with chronic illness, or have recovered from a serious accident feature personal accounts of the importance of sick leave, including the ability to accumulate and carry forward unused days.
"I don't know how I could have paid my mortgage and taken care of my daughter without sick leave," said Nathalie, a federal call centre worker. "I have a daughter and I am a single parent, so when I am sick, I need to take care of her, pay my bills [and] keep my head above water."
PSAC has derided past plans tabled by the government as "go-to-work-sick" proposals.
A PSAC member, who spoke to rabble on condition of anonymity, agreed with that assessment.
"Experience has shown that public servants without paid sick leave [are] more likely to come to work sick," they said. "In doing so, they endanger the health of their coworkers and our ability to deliver public services." They also said that the insurance scheme would "burden sick employees with paperwork" and impose new administrative costs.
More broadly, a lack of paid sick leave can have amplified effects on health due to its mediation of access to preventive care. Workers with paid sick leave, for example, are more able to improve their health by undergoing cancer screening or seeing a physician.
Dr. Lucy Peipins, an epidemiologist with the Centres for Diease Control, told rabble.ca that "we found that sick leave was a significant predictor in undergoing [cancer screening] tests," referring to her article in the journal BMC Public Health.
Peipins explained that such workers may have increased ability to see a doctor or visit a clinic, and that the observed relationships hold true even after controlling for other factors. "Of course, you can't control for everything -- but sick leave is an important facilitator for those who have it."
Importantly, the minimum legal requirements for sick leave policy affecting Canadian workers varies by province.
In British Columbia and Alberta, there is no requirement for employers to provide sick leave, paid or unpaid. In Manitoba, employees may take three unpaid family days per year, which must include any sick days. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the number of sick or family days is seven, though these are also unpaid and apply to workers under the same employer for 30 days. In Price Edward Island, an employee is only legally entitled to three unpaid sick days after six months.
In a comparison of sick leave policies across 22 countries, only Canada, the United States and Japan lacked a national policy requiring paid sick leave to, for example, a worker needing five days off to recover from the flu.
Allison Earle, a co-author of the comparison study, expressed concern over the changes. "Reducing the number of paid sick days would place Canada's federal employees among those receiving the fewest number of days among countries with high Human Development Index rankings," she told rabble. "Only New Zealand has fewer days -- five per 12-month period," she added, referring to that country's legal minimum for all workers.
Earle voiced support for the idea that allowing the carrying over of sick days is another way to prevent employees from coming to work sick, potentially reducing the risk of further absences and productivity loss due to spread of infections. Earle also highlighted the potential danger in implementing such changes during a period of economic vulnerability.
"Any government action to reduce workers' ability to keep their jobs while caring for their own or a family member's health needs when the economy is still recovering from a period of high unemployment is concerning."
Cory Collins is a nonfiction writer, visual artist, poet and contributor to rabble.ca and other publications. His poetry, criticism and art work have appeared in the Island Review, Lemon Hound, The Telegram, Burnaby Now, Off the Coast and Cordite Poetry Review, while he has written on current events, economic news and political affairs for Aslan Media, People's World, Bee Culture and Canadian Dimension. He lives in St. John's and can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.
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