09/28/2017 17:45 EDT | Updated 09/28/2017 17:45 EDT

B.C. Needs To Support Workers' Mental Health And Mandate Paid Sick Leave

All it would take is a simple amendment of a piece of legislation and a bold vision.

We need affordable childcare and paid sick leave so workers don't have to choose between their health and their livelihood. - Jackie Speier, Democratic Representative from California's 14th District

What is the worth of strong labour laws in British Columbia? They make sure that every worker is treated fairly, that every worker receives fair compensation for their work, that safety is made a paramount concern not just for workers, but for employers as well. Labour laws have evolved to represent where we are in space and time, and should reflect the realities of the lives of workers based on the conditions that exist now, and how things will change in the future.

Where should the next evolution in labour law come for B.C.? Mandatory paid sick leave.

Being in a union affords me the privilege of a negotiated contract wherein I receive "x" amount of sick days per year without needing to provide a doctor's note. Most of my contracts have stipulated that, should the illness span a certain length of time, a doctor's note would then be required. This is understandable, as employers need to plan their staffing levels based on a reasonable expectation of when their employee can return to work. The benefit was always there, and I can plainly say that I took for granted how lucky I was to have these benefits.

Many workers aren't so lucky to have the above benefits and wage protections.

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As a mental health activist, bringing the realities of those suffering from mental illness into the light of day is important; we need to do more to recognize the presence of mental illness in the workplace. With increasing focus on health and wellness in our workplaces, providing sick leave for those that don't necessarily manifest physical symptoms seems an obvious prerequisite to start fundamentally shifting how we think about mental wellness. I have taken advantage of the sick days afforded me by my collective agreement when I knew that I would be physically and emotionally unable to function at work. Lucky me, but not so lucky for those who aren't afforded paid sick leave by legislation or collective agreement — they must go to work and put their health second so their bills can get paid.

The more I thought about these factors, the more I felt that the time had come for B.C. to take a step into the future and update the laws on its books to provide mandatory sick leave for all B.C. workers. I decided to start a petition to request that the government amend the B.C. Employment Standards Act to include mandatory paid sick leave for B.C. workers. This wouldn't require any additional taxpayer spending and, in fact, the new Minister of Labour Harry Bains has already been mandated to review and update the act. What better time to include this new change?

Providing sick leave for those that don't necessarily manifest physical symptoms seems an obvious prerequisite to start fundamentally shifting how we think about mental wellness.

What experiences could I draw on, though? Surely there were other jurisdictions where paid sick leave was a reality?

My research found that there were two jurisdictions in the United States that have paid sick leave laws. In the United States, California and Connecticut have both passed mandatory sick leave laws for workers not covered by federal agreements or union contracts. California law, as an example, states that you must work for the same employer for 30 days to qualify for sick leave and satisfy a 90-day employment period before taking it. A full-time worker would get roughly 7.5 sick days a year.

Is this enough? Clearly not for Ontario, which determined that 10 sick days per year, two of which would be paid, was a more reasonable standard to set. This change, part of a series of initiatives aimed at reforming workplace laws in Ontario, doesn't go nearly far enough to ensure that workers are compensated for sick time away from work, nor does it take into account the new realities of modern workplaces, young workers, or mental health.

What about in Europe, which seems to constantly set the bar high for workers' rights:

  • Sweden has a paid sick leave law that works as follows: the first sick day is usually not paid, after that, you get 80 per cent of your income for 364 days, and 75 per cent after up to a maximum of 550 days. These rights come into place after a month of employment.
  • France has paid sick leave paid partly by social security and partly by the employer. A medical justification is required no later than 48 hours after the first sick day, and the employee must work for the employer for more than one year.
  • In Germany, the employer is required to provide at least six weeks of sick leave per illness at full salary if the employee can present a medical certificate of being ill.

Mandatory paid sick leave is a move that has the support of labour unions here in B.C. and across the country, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which began a campaign in 2014 called Healthy Workplaces aimed at countering myths about paid sick leave in the public sector. They also began a petition to support the move to paid sick leave for workers all across Canada in response to the-then Harper government's "go to work sick" policy.

Paid sick leave is also good for business, as presenteeism (coming to work when ill) is estimated to cost Canadian industry $15-$25 billion a year. Paid sick leave is actually good for business.

The time to bring in mandatory paid sick leave and strengthen fundamental rules that govern labour relations in our province is now. All it would take is a simple amendment of a piece of legislation and a bold vision.

Ryan Painter is a mental health activist, volunteer with the Canadian Mental Health Association - Victoria Chapter, and a government relations and communications consultant. To learn more about his consulting work, check out his website

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