Paid Sick Days: The Better Way

Kelly Holloway describes how changes to business practices concerning sick days can be beneficial for workers’ health and the economy.

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Most employees understand the case in favour of paid sick days. If you do not have them, you probably have to choose between staying home sick and losing pay or going to work sick and putting other people’s health at risk. But the steadfast counter argument to the campaign for paid sick days is that businesses suffer, especially small businesses. And when businesses suffer, the economy suffers.

A newly formed alliance, the Better Way to Build the Economy Alliance, is challenging the argument that legislated paid sick days are bad for the economy. It is doing so by bringing together employers who feel that paid sick days are actually good for businesses. More than that, the alliance claims that decent working conditions and a better minimum wage are good for the economy. This alliance of businesses and community leaders is helping to prove that investments like paid sick days and better wages result in higher levels of employee productivity and customer satisfaction.

“In a small business, you know your employees, and it’s rare, rare, that someone will abuse a paid sick day,” says Paul Hayman from Five Walls Realty in Guelph. “In fact, in my experience most of the time you have to tell someone to go home because they’re feeling sick.”

Toronto, 2016. Photo Credit: Kelly Holloway

Hayman, along with other employers, is featured in the Better Way videos, launched earlier this month. They describe how investing in their employees is good for their business. Hayman adds that if a person comes to work sick and gets hurt, for instance in the construction business, worker’s compensation is far more expensive to employers than a paid sick day. Likewise, people who work in sales and IT, for example, can make costly mistakes if they come to work sick.

Trent Bauman, co-owner of Menno S. Martin Contractor Ltd. Bauman’s company is also featured in the Better Way videos. His company announced a living wage stance, that starts their employees at $16.05/hour. This creates a better quality of life, improved health and increased opportunities for education and training for employees. Employers get decreased turnover rates, lower recruitment and training costs, increased morale, productivity, and loyalty. Bauman’s experience has convinced other employers to follow suit.

In Ontario, approximately 1.6 million workers are not entitled to a single paid sick day. Of note, this even includes some people who are front-line workers in the healthcare sector. Individuals who go to work when they’re contagious put the health of their colleagues and anyone else whom they encounter at risk. As Ruchetto and Hayman argue, this is a public health threat and legislated paid sick days can address it directly.

Employers like Bauman and Hayman are in-step with research that demonstrates that paid sick days are good for the economy. In the US, where states have passed legislation on paid sick days, researchers have followed up to track the economic impact. They show that paid sick days don’t have a major impact on the company’s bottom line.

New York City passed the Earned Sick Times Act in 2013, that gives companies with five or more employees the ability to acquire job-protected sick leave. Economists with the Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted a survey of managers at 30 establishments in a variety of industries in New York City to explore the impact of the law. They found that 85% of the employers who responded to the survey found the law had no effect on their overall business cost. 94% reported that the law had no effect on their business’ productivity.

Where paid sick days have been legislated across the United States, in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Seattle, Jersey City and New York City, it has been with minimal effect on the costs to employers and high rewards in terms of employee productivity and morale. With the exception of Prince Edward Island, no such legislation exists in Canada.

The formation of the Better Way Alliance is timely given the imminent announcement of Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review, which seeks to identify potential labour and employment reforms. The employers in this alliance will add their voices to a much broader movement calling for the review to address the precariousness of the labour market and support decent wages and working conditions. This movement draws on the argument that health is deeply intertwined with other social factors like education, unemployment, working conditions, and housing. Ultimately, this movement promotes the fundamental fact that decent work and working conditions result in healthier workers and a healthier population.

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Kelly Holloway is a medical sociologist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. She is also an activist with the Decent Work and Health Network. @kellyjholloway