Sunday, 25 May 2014

Resisting Reduced Sick Days


As part of the 2014 Federal Budget tabled by the late Jim Flaherty, the government and 17 federal unions are going into what is apt to be a highly-charged bout of collective bargaining. The prevailing interest of the government during these negotiations will purportedly be to replace existing sick leave benefits with a new short-term disability plan.

Despite the government’s statement of interest in sick leave benefits, many workers have expressed concern that the government will seek to put pension reform on the table as well. Tony Clement has sought to alleviate such concerns, stating that his top priorities for the upcoming round of bargaining are to change sick leave benefits and to reduce absenteeism. Clement said:

Changing current defined benefit pension plans available to the core public service (is) not the subject of the current round of bargaining.

According to Clement, the new focus will be to propose a reduction of sick days, a greater dependence on short term disability leave and the elimination of bankable sick days.[1]

Clement has tried to couch the proposed changes to sick leave in language of government benevolence and of the government’s desire to help ill workers who it claims are underserviced by the current legislation. Those suffering from mental illness, for example, are said to be neglected by the current system. And won’t they be happy to know the government is coming to the rescue!

However, with this government’s track record, it’s only right to be critical. And that’s exactly what the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) is. PSAC isn’t buying Clement’s line, and has accused this government of having plans to contract out sick leave policy.

PSAC President, Robyn Benson, has noted this skepticism:

When the Minister refers to a short-term disability plan, he means contracting out the management of the sick leave system to a third-party administrator; where caseloads are managed for profit, pushing employees back to work as quickly as possible[2].

In other words, by forcing workers to apply for short term disability rather than simply take sick days, the government is stripping workers of their rights to sick days and outsourcing decision-making authority for sick benefits to insurance providers. With sick benefits, workers are automatically entitled to them. This is not so with benefits through insurers. As cases dealing with bad faith by insurers in denying benefits demonstrate, employees are often required to sue the insurer to recover unpaid benefits. Not only does this insult the dignity of the workers, litigation is often time-consuming and costly. These proposed reforms to sick days are a clear assault not only the rights of workers to sick days, but an opportunistic attack on the basic humanity of the workers, reducing illness to mere budgetary matters.

No concern is expressed for the fact that insurance denials for benefits rightly owed to workers have been the subject of certain high-profile cases in provinces across the country. In several recent cases insurers have been held liable for damages for breach of their good faith obligations in assessing disability claims. Now the government wants to entrust the health of federal union workers to these institutions. It begs the question: why? As is so often the case, some believe this is just another tactic designed to weaken the unions.

Leading up to these negotiations, the government has touted the savings it expects from the proposed changes in the budget. As reported in the National Post, according to Ian Lee of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, the government:

…is sending the message to unions that this is going to happen whether they agree or not. Tony Clement isn’t going to back down and they would be grinning from ear to ear if the unions even contemplate strike because the government feels it has the court (of) public opinion on its side when it comes to reducing public service pensions and benefits.[3]

While the unions are certainly aware of the prospect of this intention to turn the public against them, they have signed a “solidarity” agreement to combat these proposed changes. Under this agreement, unions will band together to refuse to make concessions on sick leave benefits.

The government is framing this as a budgetary issue involving unions. In truth, it’s a health care issue involving us all. Health care and sick benefits impacts all Canadians. In expecting callousness, rather than compassion, the government may be underestimating the care the “public” will have for this issue.   If the government is willing to legislate away sick day benefits for members of federal unions, what’s to stop it from making cuts to public health care the next time around? It’s in the best interest of all Canadians that the unions resist these changes. We hope the “public” will reject this government’s proposals and agree to express their solidarity with the unions.