Major Calgary companies on watch for H1N1: Labour group concerned about unpaid leave

CALGARY - Corporate giants in Calgary have yet to see an uptick in employee absenteeism as flu season, and H1N1 in particular, arrives, but continue to monitor the situation closely and are ready with contingency plans.

That's not to say they've been untouched by H1N1, with Shaw Communications Inc. reporting one employee seriously sick with the influenza virus and on a respirator in Calgary.

"That's probably demographically about normal for a company our size to have some representation," Shaw president Peter Bissonnette said Wednesday.

With more than 10,000 employees across the country, Calgary-based Shaw has a pandemic plan in place for shift coverage and employees available to cover off should staff fall ill.

Sick employees are encouraged to stay home up to seven days, he said, noting they've had employees who've reported H1N1 symptoms and stayed home and recovered.

Shaw's sick leave benefits provide time off with pay.

"The days of being a hero and coming to work sick are not prescribed anymore," said Bissonnette, who got his H1N1 shot on Tuesday and is encouraging all Shaw employees to follow suit.

Not all employers in Alberta independently provide paid or unpaid sick leave, however, leaving thousands of workers, especially those in low-wage, service sector jobs, with little protection if they follow doctors advice and stay home if experiencing H1N1 symptoms, said the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Federation president Gil McGowan said the Alberta Employment Standard code doesn't say anything at all about sick leave, unlike employment standards codes in six other Canadian jurisdictions that give workers the protections they need.

"As a result, many workers don't have the confidence that they need to do the right thing and take themselves out of circulation if they are experiencing H1N1 symptoms," said McGowan, himself calling from home as he started feeling unwell during the day.

If the Alberta government is serious about slowing the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, it should amend the provincial code to include protections for such workers, he said.

Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said he's willing to talk to the federation about its concerns, but he doesn't plan to alter the labour code.

"The majority of the contracts out there include sick-leave provisions," he said.

For workers who don't have such contracts, Goudreau encouraged them and their employers to talk about H1N1 plans.

Agrium Inc. hasn't as of yet seen a noticeable increase in absenteeism among its 400 employees at its Calgary head office, said company spokesman Richard Downey.

Agrium employees are strongly encouraged to stay home when sick and managers are encouraging employees to get flu shots, he said.
"We have spent a considerable amount of effort to ensure employees can work from home for the corporate head office, and contingency plans are in place at our wholesale facilities," he wrote in an e-mail.
Agrium, North America's third-largest fertilizer maker, has a paid sick leave policy for employees at its Calgary corporate office and sick leave policy for its entire operation, but the specifics of those vary depending on the location of the operations.

Agrium has 10,000 employees in total, including its retail operations in the United States.

It's all quiet so far on the energy front, too. EnCana Corp. hasn't experienced any unusual bouts of absenteeism due to flu, said spokeswoman Carol Howes.

Likewise, Talisman Energy hasn't experienced an epidemic of flu cases but is taking the H1N1 threat seriously, said spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland.

"We have a program and it's based around education and prevention," she said.
Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser said the company hasn't noticed any unusual absences or indications of flu among employees.
Nonetheless, the company continues to monitor the situation and promote awareness among staff, he said.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. hasn't experienced a spike in employee absenteeism, either.

Airline spokesman Richard Bartrem said WestJet has more front-line people than it needs at any one time, and so can draw on its employee base to cover off should a percentage of staffers be off sick.

Office staff, meanwhile, have the capability to work from home.

"We're asking our employees to exercise common sense, that if you believe you have the symptoms and to be contagious to stay at home, and in turn we're able to do that because they are still able to work from home," Bartrem said.

Calgary Herald, Thurs Oct 29 2009
Byline: Gina Teel

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.