Hannah Wood doesn’t think Dr. Robert Strang understands how hard it is for service workers to take a sick day.
Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, has asked people to stay home if they have just one symptom of COVID-19.
“Even if you only have one mild symptom, we would ask that you stay home 24 hours and see how that evolves,” Strang said at a news conference on Nov. 17.
Wood, a cosmetician at Shoppers Drug Mart, thinks that’s probably good public health advice, but says it’s not realistic.
“If he thinks people can just do that, that they can just call work and say ‘I have one symptom of COVID, so I’m not coming in today’ or ‘I’m not coming in tomorrow’ and that will just be okay, he doesn’t understand the conditions most service workers are working under.”
Wood says it’s common for people to come in sick.
“People work sick all of the time,” Wood said in an interview. “I have worked having the flu, I’ve worked having walking pneumonia, I worked through a shift once when I was a teenager with an ovarian cyst bursting inside my body and didn’t go home.”
There are barriers to calling in sick, Wood says. Many people only get the three unpaid sick days employers are required to give them under the labour code and can’t afford to miss a shift.
And making the call is stressful – some employers will try to guilt you into coming into work sick or finding someone to cover your shift. “A lot of people just from the social anxiety of making that call and then being treated poorly on the call, will drag themselves into work if they absolutely can at all,” says Wood.
And if you do stay home, you might lose work hours for it. Wood said employers will treat people who call in sick as unreliable and cut their hours. “The new way to fire people is to just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut their hours until they quit.”
If people want service workers to take time off when they are sick, Wood said there must be paid sick days guaranteed in the labour code.
This would mean people could afford to take time off and “if it were in the labour code, I think employees would feel safer using it,” says Wood.
Advocating for 10 paid sick days
Wood is part of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage across Canada and for stronger rights for workers. The campaign wants 10 paid sick days to be the minimum under the labour code in Nova Scotia.
Lisa Cameron, an organizer with the campaign, says it’s usually people with low incomes who don’t get paid sick days. “We see grocery store workers, cleaners, essential workers, restaurant workers, people like that, who we call heroes, who are often put in this position,” Cameron said in an interview.
The Nova Scotia NDP is also calling for 10 paid sick days.
In September 2018, the party tabled a bill that would entitle working people to six paid sick days annually. That bill will die when the Liberals discontinue this session of the legislature on Dec. 18, but NDP leader Gary Burrill said in an emailed statement they will update their legislation to 10 paid sick days and continue fighting for it when the legislature reconvenes in the New Year.
Currently, Nova Scotia provides the least amount of unpaid sick days, alongside British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. Prince Edward Island also only provides three unpaid sick days, but employers also have to give employees an additional paid sick day after five years of working for them.
Brandon Ellis, senior manager of policy for the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, is supportive of temporary government-funded sick leave programs, but said businesses cannot take on that cost.
“I think it would be unreasonable to ask employers to pick up the bill while many are on the brink and fighting for their survival right now,” Ellis said in an interview.
“It’s the toughest time that I’ve ever seen for business right now.”
Judy Fudge, LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli Professor in Global Labour Issues at McMaster University, thinks 10 paid sick days is possible. Both Germany and the United Kingdom have some form of paid sick leave. But it would take a co-payer system, potentially involving the federal government.
“You have to find a way of funding it. And I think funding it in part through the federal government is then a way to encourage the provinces to guarantee relief,” Fudge said in an interview.
Federal benefits don’t cover everyone
When asked in a recent interview what supports the province is offering workers without access to paid sick days, provincial Labour Minister Lena Metlege Diab pointed to the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.
The benefit offers $450 a week after taxes to workers who can’t work for COVID-19-related reasons. It’s available to workers who have contracted COVID-19, are self-isolating for COVID-19-related reasons, or were advised to self-isolate because they have a health condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
But a worker also has to be unable to work half of their scheduled work week, which leaves out anyone who only needs to self-isolate for a short period of time. If a worker gets tested for COVID-19 and only has to self-isolate for two days before the test comes back negative, they might miss two days of work and not qualify for the benefit.
Metlege Diab also pointed to the provincial Declared Emergency Leave, which gives workers unpaid sick leave if they have to miss work while following the government’s emergency orders, like an order to self-isolate after getting tested for COVID-19.
The minister also said the government is “encouraging employers to work with employees to accommodate them when they need to stay home.”
“And from what we’ve been hearing, many employers are doing a great job to work with employees,” she said.
This came nine days after Strang said during the Nov. 17 news conference that “we’re hearing some stories of employers saying that you people need to come to work, even though they’re unwell.”
People who have questions about their specific circumstances can call 1-888-315-0110 and someone will walk them through labour standards, Metlege Diab said.