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Sick Days For Coronavirus Are A Privilege Many Canadian Service Workers Don’t Have

Without paid sick leave, not everyone can afford to stay home for 14 days.

As global COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise and new Canadian cases are confirmed seemingly every day, concern about the novel coronavirus is only growing — and so is concern over service workers’ ability to take time off work.

Health officials recommend a 14-day self-quarantine for most people suspected of contracting the virus, which has prompted a rush for “pandemic preparedness kits.”

Items like bulk toilet paper and pasta are flying off the shelves at Costcos across Canada as people prepare to stay home in the event they or a family member gets sick.

But for many Canadians, including those behind the till at those big box stores, the coronavirus itself isn’t the only scary thing about a quarantine. The prospect of 14 days home from work can be terrifying too.

The ability to self-quarantine and not work for two weeks is a class privilege not afforded to many low-income and precarious workers. And while no one is out there willingly spreading the virus, financial pressure in the absence of paid sick leave to show up to work while feeling unwell could very well lead to its continued spread.

I’ve worked in the service industry for almost a decade, and I can count on one hand the number of days I’ve called in sick.

A bad bout of pneumonia when I was a hostess at a rural Alberta chain Italian restaurant in high school. That time I got heat stroke serving on a hotel patio in Calgary. A sinus infection last year when I literally couldn’t speak without blowing my nose.

The lack of paid sick leave coupled with the precariousness of shift work has led me to work while under the weather far more than I, or customers to be frank, would like. And I’m not alone. A 2010 study of more than 4,000 U.S. workers in the restaurant industry revealed that nearly 63 per cent of cooks and servers went to work while sick.

A sign warning about the spread of germs is shown at a conference in Toronto on Mar. 1, 2020.
A sign warning about the spread of germs is shown at a conference in Toronto on Mar. 1, 2020.

In a service setting, where hands are constantly touching food and faces and dishes, that’s a lot of germs flying around. And in the face of an oncoming coronavirus pandemic and possible quarantines, the lack of paid sick leave in the service industry isn’t just an inconvenience — it’s dangerous.

There is currently no federal legislation in place protecting Canadian workers’ right to be paid for any amount of sick days. While many employers offer paid sick leave as a benefit, that’s rarely the case in the service industry. In precarious and service industry jobs, many people live paycheque to paycheque and every shift counts.

Assuming their workplace remains open, precarious workers are faced with two options in the prospect of a recommended COVID-19 quarantine — lose 14 days in wages, or go to work and possibly continue to contract or spread the virus. For many, it’s a difficult choice, especially if a partner or other household income earner is also sick.

WATCH: Here’s how the coronavirus will impact Canada’s economy. Story continues below.

Legally, an employer cannot make you work sick. But in high-turnover service industries, there’s plenty of incentive to come to work sick anyways.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of nearly 500 food service workers revealed that 60 per cent had worked while actively sick. Half of the workers reported they did not want to lose income and a quarter said they feared losing their jobs as reasons why they went to work sick. A similar study from the Public Health Agency of Canada found that a key reason workers continued to work when sick was “they could not afford to take the time off.”

At least 145 countries worldwide provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 127 providing a week or more annually, but there is no federal mandate in Canada to ensure employers grant paid sick leave to employees.

“Half of the workers reported they did not want to lose income and a quarter said they feared losing their jobs as reasons why they went to work sick.”

Regulations around any sick leave at all vary by province. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford recently rolled back Liberal policy that brought in paid sick days for some employees. Now, employees have the right to take up to three days of unpaid job-protected leave each calendar year due to a personal illness, injury or medical emergency. But that is unpaid time.

Similarly, in B.C. employees are entitled to up to five days of unpaid leave every year. A 2019 government report recommended expanding that time to seven days a year, but it has yet to pass it as an amendment to the Labour Code.

But even the structure of “sick days” doesn’t line up with the reality of work for shift workers. Restaurants like where I’ve worked are often understaffed and there’s pressure to work, because there sometimes literally aren’t enough people to continue operating. During bad bouts of seasonal flu, I recall management having to come in and backfill for sick employees, even when the manager was also sick.

The CDC recommends workplaces are sufficiently staffed and employ on-call workers to backfill when workers are sick. Advocacy groups like Fight for $15 And Fairness recommend paid sick leave legislation at the federal or provincial level.

And it works — a 2017 study of U.S. cities with mandated paid sick leave saw flu rates drop by as much as 40 per cent within a year.

But as the threat of coronavirus looms, that still largely isn’t the case across Canada.

“These conditions create a near-guarantee that workers will defy public health warnings and trudge into their workplaces, regardless of symptoms,” MIT researcher Karen Scott wrote in the Conversation last month.

“In this way, a manageable health crisis can spiral out of control.”

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