The Current

Missing work to stop coronavirus spread not so easy for workers without sick pay, lawyer says

Health officials are advising anyone with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home — but that's a tough choice for many Canadians who don't get paid if they don't work.

Canadian worker without sick pay says he normally 'plows through' illnesses

Subway passengers wearing protective masks in Milan last month. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

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A Vancouver-based contract sales worker says while he understands calls for anyone with coronavirus symptoms to stay home, it's not such a simple choice for all Canadian workers.

For Adam MacGillivray, whose wages are made up of commission on completed sales and a $100 per diem, missing a week of work would mean losing "upwards of $500-$600" with no sick pay.

Facing that economic disruption, he and many of his co-workers often "try to plow through it," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

There are now 37 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada: 13 in British Columbia, 22 in Ontario and two in Quebec. Public health officials have urged people to stay home if they experience any coronavirus symptoms.

Adam MacGillivray said taking a week off sick could cost him in the region of $500-$600 dollars. (Submitted by Adam MacGillivray)

MacGillivray has been sick recently, but is not showing symptoms expected with COVID-19, such as a fever.

Nevertheless, he decided to take a few days off work because it was affecting his interaction with customers. 

"People don't want to deal with someone that has a runny nose or cough right now. For the long term, it would be more beneficial for me to take a couple days off, and try to get completely better."

MacGillivray says it is something he would like to do on a regular basis," but the financial concerns are always "in the back of my mind."

Unpaid job protection 'the norm'

Rules about sick days in Canada are regulated at the provincial level, and vary from coast to coast. 

Unpaid sick days average out at three to five days annually across the country, according to employment lawyer Sarah Molyneaux. These days are intended to protect an employee from dismissal for missing work.

Employers will end up incurring broader costs if they can't facilitate recovery time, said Sarah Molyneaux, an employment lawyer with Molyneaux Law. (Submitted by Molyneaux Law Professional Corporation)

Some provinces provide paid sick days — Quebec provides two — but "the norm across the country is unpaid job protection," Molyneaux said.

"It means you're hoping you have a reasonable employer or that you have an employment contract, workplace policies or a collective agreement that provides you something other than the minimum standard, which many people do."

But many low-wage workers do not, she says, as well as contract workers who are not classified as permanent employees by their companies, and people in the gig economy, such as Uber drivers.

Employment and labour lawyer Howard Levitt says the problem for employers is that "employees are often not honest."

"They'll claim to be sick for mental health days, for any matter of real or imagined illnesses, or feeling less than perfect," he told The Current.

"And the employer is paying a massive burden that people take advantage of."

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Molyneaux disagreed. 

"Some people are dishonest some of the time," she said. "But your average person is going to get sick during a calendar year."

Employers will end up incurring broader costs if they can't facilitate recovery time, she said. 

"You have people coming to work sick, spreading their germs around the workplace, on their commute, not being as productive while they are at work and potentially needing longer-term absences because their illness becomes more serious." 

Employers must be 'mindful of our expenses'

Walter Pranke, the vice-president of human resources for Lee Valley Tools, says the allotment of sick days for full- and part-time workers at his company comes down to a "business decision."

"Retail's a very, very competitive marketplace, and we rely on the customers and their habits of buying, so we have to be very mindful of our expenses," he told Galloway. 

Full-time workers at Lee Valley Tools get five sick days, accrued over the course of a year, but part-time staff are not eligible because of the shorter hours they work, he said.

Increasing paid sick leave "takes away from investments in other areas," he said. 

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In the face of coronavirus, however, he says his company is trying to be pragmatic and protect its workers. 

He explained they're directing employees feeling ill to speak with health authorities. If self-quarantine is required, management is speaking with the employee to support them. 

"We'd certainly look at it and say… 'You're scheduled for X number of shifts this week, we'll cover that cost,'" he said.

He'd like the government to start looking at the coronavirus risk from the point of view of individual employees, and finding ways to support those who fall ill. He suggested employment insurance could be made available in the event of lost work due to coronavirus. 

We're making a mistake if we always act reactively to these issues, and always rely on the generosity of employers.- Sarah Molyneaux

"If somebody had to be off for a 14-day period, could they apply for benefits and get coverage?" he asked.

Molyneaux says workers need more protection.

"I think we're making a mistake if we always act reactively to these issues, and always rely on the generosity of employers," she said.

"What we need is acceptable, reasonable, minimum employment standards, because cold and flu season comes around every year, even if coronavirus does not."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann, Ines Colabrese and Matt Meuse.