Workers with no benefits debate staying home sick

Alberta needs legal protection for workers who don't have sick leave benefits but are being urged to stay home if they're not feeling well, particularly in flu season.

Health professionals and employers are asking staff to refrain from showing up at work if they feel sick to prevent the H1N1 virus from spreading, but many people can't afford to.

Shaina Kathrens, who works for an hourly wage at a retail store in a Calgary mall, said if she doesn't work, she doesn't get paid.

"I was thinking about calling in sick today and I'm like, no I can't, if I miss my budget by like a little bit, I'll be messed. It's really bad."

'We lose our pay, and everybody needs to be able to pay their rent and their bills. So they go to work anyway even if they're not supposed to.'
- Erin Hines, retail managerThe store Kathrens works for has issued a memo saying that employees who are sick shouldn't come in. But store manager Erin Hines said the company policy will be hard to follow.

"We lose our pay, and everybody needs to be able to pay their rent and their bills," Hines said. "So they go to work anyway, even if they're not supposed to."

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said more than half the workers in Canada don't receive any kind of sick leave benefits. He predicts this will force many ill employees to show up at work during the H1N1 and seasonal flu season.

"That could have very serious implications both for the workers, for the employers and for the broader society," McGowan said.

Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said Wednesday that he's willing to meet with McGowan to discuss potential changes to provincial legislation.

"We'll chit-chat about that," Goudreau told CBC News. "You know there's no doubt that employees are concerned about their job.

"There are some individuals that have no provision. What I'm telling people is to not wait till something happens, just go and talk to each other. Make sure that they've got a plan and know how their employers are going to treat them if everybody gets sick, especially on a longer-term basis."

Goudreau said his department has not received overwhelming complaints about the issue.

Avoiding future sick days
Some employers are being flexible in allowing staff time to wait at vaccination clinics for hours - so they can avoid getting sick in the first place.

"If they call us and say we've been here for hours and hours, then we'll look at our schedule, and say you know, 'stay in line, do it right,'" said Joseph Wiewer, chef and co-owner of Wildwood Grill in Calgary. "So we have to be flexible with that."

Others have chosen to take unpaid time to ensure they stay healthy.

"I've taken the whole day off work and my kids have taken the whole day off school just to come and get this done," Frank Ballerini said as he waited for his H1N1 shot on Tuesday in Calgary. "Regardless, I don't paid get for this day so there's a cost to us."

CBC News, Wed Oct 28 2009

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