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