Sick attitude, poor management

It’s become a recurrent pattern for the Conservative government: when facing internal scandal, attack public workers.

The latest salvo came last week: a completely unwarranted, and factually misleading, attack from Treasury Board president Tony Clement on federal employees’ use of sick leave. This type of ideology-driven attack seeks to distract Canadians from the actual ailments plaguing the Conservative government. Let’s look at the facts and diagnose the real symptoms.

Consider, for instance, workers’ collectively bargained right to ‘bank’ sick days. Contrary to false impressions generated by the Conservative attack on public workers, banking sick days is not a perk. Employees cannot ‘cash them out’ and cannot benefit from them when they retire.

What it is, is a mechanism designed to address a very serious problem: what happens to workers who develop chronic or serious long-term illnesses. Ultimately, they can apply for long-term disability, but there’s a period of up to 13 weeks (65 working days) before disability insurance kicks in.  Banked sick days help workers get by during this period. If they don’t have banked sick days, it means a dramatic drop in salary for them at a time when they’re dealing with the greatest hardship they and their family will probably ever face. Banked sick days aren’t a luxury. They’re a way for seriously ill workers and their families to survive.

By the numbers

The federal Conservatives have publicized a lot of misleading and inaccurate statistics. The ‘averages’ they cite are misleading because they include not just workers who get sick for short periods of time, but also workers with chronic illnesses and those who are phasing into long-term disability programs. With this type of statistical sleight-of-hand, the Conservative government is able to use a small number of workers who legitimately require extra support, to make it appear as though all workers are taking excessive amounts of sick leave.

The fact is, most workers take 0-8 days of sick leave per year; numbers commensurate with other workers in Canada.

Conservatives exploiting the private sector

The Conservatives claim federal workers take more sick leave than their counterparts in the private sector. Well there’s a reason for this which speaks directly to the failures of the Conservative government to bolster and strengthen this country’s health and labour standards. When non-unionized private sector employees wind up with serious, chronic illnesses, many of them don’t have sick leave or long-term disability protections and are forced to quit their jobs. It’s cruel and inhumane for workers who get cancer, heart disease and other illnesses to be forced out of the workforce by their employers just at the time when they are most in need of support. But, that’s the cruel reality for many private sector employees.

What we need to do is work together – public and private sector – to strengthen labour standards and worker rights in this country and ensure no worker is forced to endure the loss of a job on top of a chronic and life-threatening illness. Instead, the Conservative government is trying to divide us against each other. It’s important we not fall for this divisive ploy.  Sick leave and long-term disability are fundamental rights for every worker in Canada.

Given recent sweeping, federal job cuts, many workers are actually afraid to use sick days lest they be considered unreliable and become targets. The result is sick workers endangering themselves, their workplaces, and the public by coming to work when they are too ill to do so. We also know that government’s cuts to jobs, programs and services have lead to an increase in mental illness in the workplace. There’s been a surge in calls to the federal Employee Assistance Program, dozens of which have been flagged as suicide risks.

We can’t fire elected bosses, which is what people like Tony Clement are.  But we can say this: these days Conservative MPs and Senators can’t hold a candle to a public sector worker.  We’re the ones holding down the fort, serving the public everyday and forever doing more with less.  And their attempt to drag us through the mud is unfair. It’s irresponsible.

And it’s downright sick.


Jeannie Baldwin
Regional Executive Vice-President
Public Service Allianceof Canada