Staying home when you're sick not so easy in Alberta

Thanks to the H1N1 virus, society is finally coming to understand how critical it is to prevent the spread of viral infections.
It's unfortunate that it took a real global threat to finally bring home the message. But the message should now be clear: if you are sick, stay home for the protection of those around you in the workplace and at school.

For generations, children have been sent to school with fevers, running noses, sneezing and coughing. These are the symptoms of a very sick child. Why aren't they kept at home? Put them in a crowded classroom environment and the potential to spread that virus to other children is immense.

From there, some of those classmates bring the virus home and pass it on to their parents and siblings. In turn, parents report to their workplace displaying the same symptoms and pose the same potential to spread the virus to co-workers. And the cycle continues.

Some employees are afraid to call in sick for fear of lost wages -- or worse, their employers believe it's not true.

But finally, with this recent virus scare, we have realized that a sick child in a classroom, or a sick person in the workplace, poses a serious hazard to others. It's amazing this has taken so long to sink in.

Adults missing work due to illness, for example, have been penalized by reduced wages, or no wages at all -- penalized by a public health problem in great part created by those refusing to stay home and nurse their illness.

According to Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, Albertans need better protection under the Employment Standards Code.

"The employment standards codes in six other Canadian jurisdictions give workers the protections they need," McGowan said. "All of those codes say that workers cannot be disciplined, demoted or dismissed for taking time off work because of short-term illness. The Alberta code, on the other hand, doesn't say anything at all about sick leave. As a result, workers whose employers don't independently provide paid or unpaid sick leave -- and we think that's a majority of workers in Alberta -- face the prospect of being punished for doing the right thing."

McGowan has asked that the provincial code be changed quickly.

Certainly the problem also requires some measure of understanding among employers, particularly for those employees with children. If a child is too sick to go to school and child care is not available, what are the options for parents? Send the child to school anyway or stay home to care for your child, regardless of the consequences. Often parents in such circumstances are penalized by lost wages or worse.

It is time we got over the archaic mindset that praised employees who reported for duties while ill. They were applauded by the bosses as being "real troopers" because, apparently, showing up for work under such dire physical circumstances was a reflection on their devotion to the job.

Little, if any, regard was afforded to co-workers expected to perform their duties beside an ill co-worker. Then, if a concerned worker refused to work under such unhealthy conditions and walked out, his pay was in jeopardy.

But now the message is clear, thanks in part to the medical community that has emphasized a sick child does not belong in the classroom and a sick worker does not belong on the job.

In Ontario, doctors have urged employers to dump the mandatory doctor's note if someone calls in sick. Obtaining such a note is counter-productive, forcing sick people to venture out when they should be in bed, not bringing the virus into public places.

Schools and workplaces can expect higher-than-normal absenteeism this year. But by staying home, those who are ill are preventing a far more serious outbreak.

Winnipeg Free Press, Wed Nov 4 2009


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