If the Alberta government is serious about slowing the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, it should amend the provincial Employment Standards Code to include protections for workers who follow the advice of public health authorities and stay home from work when they're experiencing flu-like symptoms.
Without such protections, thousands of workers - especially those in low-wage, service sector jobs - will continue coming to work when they're sick, thereby jeopardizing their own health and undermining efforts to bring the H1N1 pandemic under control.
That was the message delivered today by Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan to an audience of 500 registered nurses gathered in Edmonton to attend the United Nurses of Alberta's annual general meeting.
"The employment standards codes in six other Canadian jurisdictions give workers the protections they need," says McGowan.
"All of those codes say that workers cannot be disciplined, demoted or dismissed for taking time off work because of short-term illness. The Alberta code, on the other hand, doesn't say anything at all about sick leave. As a result, workers whose employers don't independently provide paid or unpaid sick leave - and we think that's a majority or workers in Alberta - face the prospect of being punished for doing the right thing."
Statistics on the number of employees with access to paid or unpaid sick leave are spotty. But studies from Statistics Canada and other sources suggest that only about 57 per cent of working Canadians have employers whose policies allow them to take time off when they're sick. Access to these benefits is much higher in unionized workplaces (77 per cent) compared to non-union workplaces (45 per cent).
"Given the fact that the available figures are national and that Alberta has a lower rate of union coverage than other provinces, we're pretty confident that the percentage of workers in Alberta with formal access to sick leave through their employers in only at or below fifty per cent," said McGowan. "For everyone else, the only protections they could have would be found in the provincial Employment Standards Code - but those protections just aren't there."
McGowan says that problems exist even in workplaces that do have formal sick leave policies because many employers actively discourage workers from taking sick days even if they're entitled to them.
McGowan has asked for an emergency meeting with Employment Minister Hector Goudreau. At the meeting, he will present him with draft amendments to the Code that could be introduced and adopted by the Legislature quickly.
"The good news is that the Legislature has just resumed sitting," says McGowan. "If there's the political will among the government and opposition parties, they could have new emergency legislation passed by this time next week. They could also use debate on new legislation as a platform to send a clear message to employers about the need to make it easier, not harder, for sick workers to follow the advice of public health authorities."
For more information call: Gil McGowan, AFL President @ (780) 218-9888
In yesterday's Throne Speech, the Alberta government announced plans to review the province's often controversial Employment Standards Code -- the law that sets minimum standards for things like overtime, vacations, minimum wage and hours of work.
But while many people agree that changes are long overdue, the Alberta Federation of Labour fears a review of the Code under the direction of the current government may simply make a bad situation worse.
"This is the same government that is seriously considering a tearing up its own Human Rights legislation in order to satisfy the whims of a few big oil companies that want the right to impose mandatory drug testing on their workers," says AFL president Kerry Barrett.
"What concerns us is that this review will end up being yet another example of the government bending over backward to satisfy the demands of employers. And, yet again, the interests of working people will be ignored in the process."
In particular, Barrett worries that the government may decide to change rules on overtime -- so that employers can require their employees to work longer hours without overtime pay.
"That's exactly what the government of Conservative Premier Mike Harris did in Ontario a five years ago when they introduced a 60-hour work week," says Barrett. "Unfortunately, this kind of change is probably exactly what the government means when they say the Code needs to be made more 'current and relevant.'"
The impact of watered-down rules on overtime will be particularly harmful here in Alberta, says Barrett, because Albertans work more hours and put in more overtime (both paid and unpaid) than workers in any other province.
"Extending the work week or giving employers other ways to weasel out of paying overtime will hit many working Albertans hard," says Barrett. "It has the potential to take a really big bite out of the budgets of thousands and thousands of families."
Instead of weakening Employment Standards protections, Barrett says the government should focus on beefing up enforcement of existing rules.
"The biggest problem with Employment Standards today is not the wording of the Code," says Barrett. "Instead, it's the fact that the onus is always on employees to complain. The government almost never launches its own investigations. And even when employers are found guilty of violations, they rarely face more than a stern warning and a slap on the wrist. That kind of weak-kneed approach to enforcement is what really has to change in this province."
For more information call
Kerry Barrett, AFL President @ (780) 720-8945 (cell)
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ (780) 483-3021 (work)