We often turn up our noses at employees who come to work sick, wondering why they are not at home recovering, and sparing their coworkers a chance to contract their illness. Yet, many of us often face barriers to taking days off from work. Fearing financial loss or even dismissal from employment, we soldier through our sneezes and force ourselves to take on work that, in reality, compromises our ability to get well.
As public health students, and members of the Decent Work and Health Network, we know that being forced to work while sick is not healthy. No one should have to choose between getting better and getting paid. Our health should not be a commodity valued at an hourly wage.
No one in the province of Ontario currently has a right to paid sick days; instead, it all depends on the generosity of your employer. Over 1.6 million workers are employed in businesses with fewer than 50 employees, which are exempted from legislation that protects their jobs if they take unpaid sick days. In other words, these workers could be fired for calling in sick.
What we need are paid sick days, so that no worker has to choose between going to work while sick and losing income, or even risking their job. We are part of a campaign demanding that everyone in Ontario gets one hour of paid sick time for every 35 hours worked, meaning seven paid sick days per year for a full-time worker. There are over 145 countries in the world, as well as 23 jurisdictions in the U.S, that give their workers some form of paid sick days. Ontario is rapidly falling behind.
The lack of paid sick days is just a symptom of the broader phenomenon of increasing precarity in the workplace – one that impacts students and young people especially. Whether it is by cycling through unpaid internships and practicum placements for course credit, through casual work in the retail and service industry, or as recent alumni jumping from one contract to the next, students and recent alumni are familiar with the world of precarious work.
Students are more likely to engage in part-time, casual, temporary, or contract work, and often we are not entitled to benefits like paid sick days. Precarious workers are also more likely to be women, newcomers, racialized and Indigenous peoples, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, adding another element of marginalization to the problem.
Ensuring access to paid sick days is one important way the government can improve our workplaces, and work is being done to ensure that these days are secured for employees. In one such action, on April 15, thousands took to the streets in front of the Ontario Ministry of Labour to protest unfair working conditions and labour laws. A diverse group of advocates, from union representatives to students to healthcare professionals, stood together united under the banner of the $15 and Fairness campaign. Along with paid sick days, the campaign is calling for fair scheduling, decent hours for decent incomes, ‘respect at work rules’ that protect everyone, and a 15 dollar minimum wage.
This campaign is especially relevant right now, as Ontario conducts the Changing Workplaces Review, a consultation process aimed at adjusting Ontario’s Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act. This historic review is taking place within a new era of changing workplaces, and we need to demand that the recommendations support decent working conditions for all. Paid sick days are a vital demand that must be enacted, but they are just a few of the policies to be implemented in a larger set of comprehensive reforms to our labour and employment laws.
These reforms can lead to fairer workplaces, which lead to a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. As the next generation of workers and young professionals, we will inherit these outdated and troubling workplace policies unless we start to take active steps to fight for fairness to address these challenges head on.
Anjum Sultana and Antu Hossain are Masters of Public Health students and members of the Decent Work and Health Network. Anjum is the Executive Co-Director of IMAGINE, a student-run clinic affiliated with the University of Toronto. Antu is the health sector organizer with the Worker’s Action Centre.