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Supporting Workers Through Sick Leave Policies in Canada
January 22, 2020
Supporting Workers Through Sick Leave Policies in Canada

Do your employees abuse sick leave in your company? Is it cause for concern in your organization?

But what about those who don’t stay at home when ill, subsequently spreading illness and disease in the workplace? Is that something that concerns your bottom line as well?

Taking the right approach when it comes to sick leave in Canada is crucial to successful operations.

When a worker falls ill the employer is left to manage the situation, whether it be finding coverage for a sick call, a drop-in productivity, or the spreading of illness in the workplace. Research has demonstrated that workplaces with draconian sick leave policies are associated with employees going to work ill.

The CDC has broadly recognized the risk of workers spreading infectious diseases with their recommendation that those with influenza stay home when they are sick. The flu is a disease that leads to 12,200 hospitalizations and over 3,500 deaths in Canada each year. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 people go to work sick every year. Without proper sick policies, employees will miss doctors' appointments, come in sick, leave sick children home alone, or send their sick children to school, and this disproportionally impacts those with chronic illnesses or those who are resource-poor; a single mother, a low-wage worker, a recent immigrant or person without family support.

Employees describing their experiences illustrate the issues. Accounts of bosses providing trash cans as a response to workers vomiting rather than allowing them to leave, or workers having to come into work hours after having emergency surgery to avoid being written up are shared. Some workers explain that they have to work 60+ hours a week to survive financially. For them especially, missing the compensation to take a sick day creates an economic burden that they cannot take on, thus incentivizing them to come in ill.

Health and illness, as it relates to the workplace, is a problem for everyone; workers and employers alike.  In fact, the phenomenon of 'presenteeism' – people coming to work ill – is estimated to cost Canadian businesses $15-25 billion per year. There has to be a better way. 

Approaches to Sick Leave in Canada:

Currently, there are different approaches across the globe. One method requires employers to provide pay while the workers are out sick.  Others operate social insurance systems where the government covers sick pay using public dollars.  Most countries use a combination of employer mandates and social insurance.

A specific approach has been to provide workers with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. This approach was mandated in San Francisco, where two-thirds of employers supported the policy.  Furthermore, despite being eligible for sick days, the typical employee did not access all their available days, indicating abuse of the policy was not common.

Here in Ontario, the Employment Standards Act ensures that employees who have been employed for at least two consecutive weeks are annually entitled to:

  • three days of unpaid sick leave due to personal illness, injury or medical emergency;
  • three days of unpaid family responsibility leave due to a family member’s illness, injury or medical emergency or due to an urgent matter concerning a family member; and
  • two days of unpaid bereavement leave due to the death of a family member.

These changes came into effect on January 1, 2018. In so doing, the previous two paid personal emergency leave days were replaced by the above-mentioned unpaid leave days.

What Can Ontario Businesses do regarding Sick Leave in Canada?

The research establishes that having paid sick days reduces the duration of sickness, successfully getting workers back to work and to full productivity faster.  Paid sick days are also associated with higher return-to-work rates for those recovering from serious illnesses and diseases such as heart attacks or cancer.  The Ontario Employment Standards Act is a guideline and employers can work proactively to ensure a robust and cohesive system that supports when someone becomes sick. The perfect sick leave policy would discourage misuse – the day on the beach – while encouraging those who are legitimately ill to stay home and recover. 

If you need some help developing or revaluating your workplace leave policies, it’s always best to ask an HR professional for advice.  Essential HR understands the importance of taking a nuanced approach to policy development.  When we take care of our workers, it improves the outcome for all, including the bottom line for the employer.

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