Nova Scotia

Working while sick: some Nova Scotians can't afford a day off

Amid coronavirus fears, the province is recommending people don't go to work when they're not feeling well. But wage loss is keeping some Nova Scotians from taking a sick day.

Legislation tabled by NDP could mandate paid sick days in Nova Scotia if passed

Some Nova Scotians say they can't afford to take a day off when they're sick. (Shutterstock)

You might have heard this dozens of times: "If you're sick, stay home."

But what if you can't afford to lose eight hours of wages?

This is something Chantelle Comeau, who lives in Cole Harbour, N.S., and has worked in the restaurant industry for the last 24 years, struggles with every time she wakes up with a sore throat or fever. 

"Back when the H1N1 was going on, I ended up getting that. And until the day that I literally could not get out of bed, I had no choice but to go to work," said Comeau. "I couldn't afford to take a day off."

The Nova Scotia government doesn't require employers to give their staff paid sick leave, so sick leaves are often based on contracts or collective agreements.

For those without paid sick leave, it's up to staff to either go to work while sick — potentially worsening the spread of illnesses — or lose a day's worth of wages.

Recent COVID-19 outbreaks highlight the need to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria. While Nova Scotia hasn't had any confirmed cases yet, the province recommends people stay home from work if they feel unwell. 

Chantelle Comeau has been working in and out of kitchens for more than 20 years. (Submitted by Chantelle Comeau)

But Comeau said as long as there's barriers to taking sick days, employees are going to keep going to work sick.

"I do try my best to wash my hands and make sure everything's clean. But I know people are highly susceptible to [coronavirus] just because it's a very aggressive respiratory virus," said Comeau. 

"So honestly, it would just be so much easier if people could stay home when they're sick."

'Financially straining'

Under Nova Scotia's labour standards code, employees are entitled to receive up to three days of unpaid sick leave each year. 

Federally-regulated employees are entitled to up to 17 weeks of unpaid medical leave. They can also get up to five days of personal leave per year, three of which would be paid if the employee has worked for the employer for three consecutive months. 

Some employees may also be eligible for employment insurance sickness benefits

Not having across-the-board paid sick leaves for all jobs leaves lower-wage earners and people with precarious jobs in the dust, said Comeau.

"If they don't have paid sick days and they have to miss any kind of time, that's financially straining," she said. "It's having to pick between groceries ... or the power bill. It's not being able to know if you're going to be able to pay for rent."

Renewed calls for paid sick leave

The Nova Scotia NDP is calling for changes to the provincial labour standards code to allow all employees to get paid sick days.

In September 2018, the NDP introduced legislation entitling all employees one paid half day of sick leave per month of employment, up to a maximum of six days a year. It was tabled.

During question period at Province House Wednesday, NDP leader Gary Burrill said it's a public health risk for people to go to work while sick.

"This is a situation with a simple remedy: paid sick days for all employees in Nova Scotia," he said. 

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says all Nova Scotia workers should get paid sick days. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)
 

In response, Premier Stephen McNeil said many private companies in Nova Scotia negotiate for sick days at the bargaining table, and there are also self-employed people who "make decisions for that business."

"I don't believe it should be government that imposes that," he said. "I'll let the employers and their representatives come to determine what benefits they want."

The NDP bill would also prevent employers from requesting sick notes. McNeil said he would be willing to revisit that policy.

Protecting the most vulnerable

Chris Parsons, the provincial co-ordinator of the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, believes the province needs paid sick leave legislation.

Parsons himself has a work "horror story" from several years ago, when he worked at three different jobs with undiagnosed pneumonia for four weeks because he couldn't afford to take time off to go to the doctor.

One of his jobs was at a coffee shop. He recalled making peoples' drinks while trying to hide how sick he was and taking coughing breaks at the dish pit.

"Even after I was diagnosed, I had to keep going to work because I didn't have paid sick days," he said. "I had to make rent."

Chris Parsons with the Nova Scotia Health Coalition says the province needs better sick leave legislation. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Parsons said when staff go to work sick, it puts their coworkers and the wider public at risk.

"I was 24 when that happened. Pneumonia probably wasn't going to kill me. But the clientele at the coffee shop included a fairly large number of elderly people," said Parsons. 

"If we want to actually make sure that we're taking care of the most vulnerable people in society, we have to make sure that we're not sending people to work sick."

Parsons also noted that not having sick leave disproportionately affects people like women and single parents who have caregiving responsibilities.

Toughing it out

Money isn't the only reason employees might go to work sick.

Paul Randem, who works as a cook, has three paid sick days each year. But despite being in good health, he said they can get used up quickly.

"It's pretty easy to go through three sick days," he said. "I missed a week's work last year because I had a dog bite. So it happens very quickly."

Randem's been in the food industry for about eight years and said he's had jobs in the past where he would feel pressured to come in when he's not feeling well.

"There's the prevailing thought that if you're not calling from the emergency room, you're good enough to go to work," he said. 

Paul Randem says he has three paid sick days, but it's easy to go through them. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

While he doesn't face this pressure from management in his current job, he said there's still an expectation in his industry for staff to "tough it out" when they're under the weather. 

Randem said people might feel an obligation to their coworkers and may come to work sick to avoid putting more work on them.

"You don't want to ruin your coworkers' evening or day shift. It's always scheduled very tightly, so you're generally not replaced," he said. 

Employer's responsibility

It may be natural to not want to abandon your colleagues — but Parsons said it's the responsibility of the employer, not the employee, to account for staff shortages.

Parsons also said for many jobs in Nova Scotia, employers can fire staff for any reason as long as proper notice is given. 

He said fears of employer backlash could dissuade some Nova Scotians from calling in sick to work, and he believes the provincial labour standards code should protect workers from getting in trouble for taking sick days.

"Certainly, at the very least, taking sick time off should count as something that you can't be punished for," he said.

Parsons added that the threat of COVID-19 shouldn't be the only reason to talk about this issue.

"It's really important that this discussion not just be about this sort of single outbreak, but be about a wider question of the relationship between public health and work."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Cooke

Reporter/editor

Alex is a reporter living in Halifax. Send her story ideas at alex.cooke@cbc.ca.

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