Working as a personal trainer at GoodLife Fitness in Toronto earlier this year, DeJanai Love fainted, hit her head and suffered a concussion.
She saw her doctor, took the weekend off, then — because she isn't paid if she calls in sick — went back to the job.
"It was making me dizzy, the headaches were coming back and I couldn't handle it," Love said Wednesday in an interview with CBC News. "So I told my doctor what was going on and she said, 'You need at least two weeks off.' So I let her know I can't do that, because I cannot afford to take time off."
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Love is just one of an estimated three million workers in Ontario who get no paid sick days. The province's workplace law does not require any employer to pay staff when they call in sick, but that could soon change.
Later this month, Premier Kathleen Wynne's government will release a report expected to recommend sweeping reforms to the province's employment laws. Sick pay is one of the items being reviewed, and advocacy groups are urging the Liberals to mandate seven paid sick days per year for all full-time employees.
Paid sick days could help health system, advocates say
"There's clear health evidence that paid sick days are good for workers," said Dr. Kate Hayman, a Toronto emergency room physician and a member of an advocacy group called the Decent Work and Health Network. "Right now in Ontario, so many people don't have access to them."
Hayman says she sees people every night who come to the emergency room for treatment of ongoing illnesses because they would lose pay if they took time off during the work day.
"People can't look after their health because we don't have the employment legislation in place to make sure that they can get the care they need," said Hayman in an interview with CBC News.
She said people who can't afford to miss a day's pay from illness typically go to work anyway.
"Food service workers often can't take time off work if they're sick, which means they're potentially spreading infectious illness like the stomach flu when they're serving you lunch or dinner," Hayman said.
Hayman points to research that suggests paid sick days would reduce burdens on Ontario's health system: people who get paid when they're sick are are more likely to go to their family doctor for (less costly) preventive care and less likely to use the (more expensive) emergency room.
GoodLife compensation 'competitive'
Studies by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario research group suggest 40 to 50 per cent of all workers in Ontario — at least three million people — are not entitled to paid sick days.
Officials with GoodLife Fitness declined CBC's request for an interview on Wednesday but sent responses to questions by email.
"The compensation package that our personal trainers receive is very competitive, and on average they are the highest-paid trainers in the Canadian fitness industry," Adam Roberts, a public relations specialist with the company, said in the email. "As with many employers, paid sick days don't form part of the compensation package."
GoodLife bills itself as the largest fitness company in Canada, with clubs in every province and more than 1.3 million members.
"It's totally unacceptable that a company as big as GoodLife should be able to get away with not providing these kind of basic benefits to workers," said Adrie Naylor of Workers United Canada, the union that represents Love and about 650 other GoodLife personal trainers.
"Massive companies like GoodLife can afford to provide paid sick days," said Naylor. "They only choose to do that when they're absolutely forced to do that by law."
The union represents personal trainers at 47 GoodLife clubs in Toronto, Peterborough and Ajax. In negotiations for a first contract, the union is proposing five paid sick days per year and the company is proposing zero, said Naylor.
Roberts acknowledged that paid sick days have come up in bargaining but declined to elaborate. "We are in ongoing discussions with the union, and do not believe that it is productive for either GoodLife or our Associates to negotiate in the media," he said in the emailed statement.
"Trainers are routinely working when they're injured or when they're sick, which is something that's totally counter to GoodLIfe's idea that everyone's going to live a healthy and good life," said Naylor.
The argument in favour of paid sick days is exemplified by Love's situation, said Naylor, "where a trainer is forced between choosing to work while they're quite seriously injured or being able to pay rent and put food on the table for their kids."
Love is the primary earner in her household, which includes five members of her extended family.
She says her health is better now but she still can't do a full workout. She is taking fewer clients per day and taking more frequent rests. Personal trainers are not covered by Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board for on-the-job injuries.
"Knowing that I had paid sick days, that would make life easier," Love said. "We should be able to say, 'Ok, I can take today off and do what I have to do today health-wise."
Love, who said she really enjoys her job, says she asked GoodLife's human resources department if there were any support it could offer, but got no response.
She wants to see the Ontario government change the law to force employers to provide sick pay.
"It shouldn't be too much to ask for a paid sick day," said Love. "We're Canadian. It should be our right."