Sick days becoming an endangered species

Financial, political pressures coalescing to force end
By Gordon Sova
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 12/18/2009

Several collective agreements in this week’s issue of CLV Reports have wound up their sick leave provisions and replaced them with a short-term disability plan. In Toronto in particular, sick days were a hot political issue during the inside and outside workers’ strike this summer. In many municipalities and schools boards, they are already a thing of the past. Those that remain are certainly going to be under scrutiny, though healthcare bargaining units might well be able to withstand the pressure for some time.

Kingston labour lawyer Kees Kort commented at a conference that he had yet to see a collective agreement that did not have two signatures. His point was that employers who complained to him about the provisions of a contract should remember that they negotiated those terms; they had given and taken. At that point, one can’t try to repudiate the portion of a bargain that is in the other party’s favour.

And even more to the point, arbitrator Owen Shime is quoted in the OC Transpo interest arbitration on the role of a municipality’s fiscal position in limiting wage and benefit increases. The employer’s ability to pay is certainly a factor, in Shime’s view, but not to the point where public service employees are expected to subsidize ratepayers by accepting substandard wages.

Sick days were negotiated for a reason and employees, at the time, gave up other benefits they might have achieved to have them. However, with the bulk of the Baby Boom about to retire and municipal costs up due to social services during a recession, the financial chickens have come home to roost.

But, it is not sufficient to suggest, as many commentators have, that sick days simply be repudiated. The fact that they are valuable to employees and expensive for municipalities is only half the story; they were also fairly bargained for. If they are no longer affordable, or if the reasoning behind allowing them to accumulate has been invalidated, by all means replace them with something that works and is fair.

Public employees are a convenient target, but taxpayers should remember that they pay for services and not salaries. Cutting government spending by cutting salaries may be effective, but it can also endanger services, as the current healthcare crisis shows.

This week’s CLV blog, also found on www.hrreporter.com, will feature another case of political oversight of labour relations.

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