February 2015 Archives

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Healthy workplaces: all in favour?

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While the federal government’s Treasury Board is focusing on sick leave in the current round of bargaining in the PSAC, our union is putting health first. The healthier and safer the workplace, the fewer sick days claimed. And the more family supports that are in place, the fewer family-related absences. Make sense?

The Harper government showed its contempt for the whole idea of workplace health and safety by making it more difficult to refuse dangerous work a year or so ago. But we’re taking a positive approach , particularly in the area of psychological health. We have to. Mental illness among Canadian workers is at epic levels. And federal public workers have one of the highest rates of mental illness in Canada.

It’s hardly surprising that so many of our members are suffering from paralyzing anxiety and depression. Cuts landing everywhere, massive workload increases, discrimination, disrespect, workplace bullying and harassment (one in five federal public workers report being harassed at work, nearly two-thirds of them by their managers)—the causes are many. How can we fix the problems?

Well, we could start with a systematic and sympathetic approach to mental ill-health among federal public workers. For some reason, the Harper government has refused so far to deal with this serious matter, even failing to implement its own Mental Health Commission of Canada’s proposed national standards for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. (Those standards can be downloaded here.)

The PSAC wants to work with Treasury Board to find solutions, and so we’ve tabled a proposal for a National Joint Task Force to tackle mental health. At the core of this work would be an endorsement of the Mental Health Commission’s standards. We are also proposing working closely with policy and workplace health and safety committees as we proceed with our project.

As an essential part of this wellness initiative, the PSAC wants a genuine partnership, one where we have equal voice, where participation is mandatory on both sides, and where the employer promptly shares all relevant information.

Our proposals also include a number of other measures to improve workplace conditions: enhancing members’ right to refuse dangerous work; specific measures to reduce stress for front-line workers and shift workers; improved collective agreement language on workplace harassment and discrimination; strong maternal health provisions; and fairness for injured workers.

One proven stressor in the workplace is managing a work/life balance, and a key element of that is affordable, accessible childcare. While the government has been closing workplace child care centres, allegedly to save money, that’s a false economy. Lack of childcare facilities inevitably causes stress and absences from the workplace. Once again, we are looking for a win-win approach, proposing a joint National Child Care Committee to address this need in a constructive and practical fashion.

I’m proud of these initiatives, and of the commitment of our bargaining teams to push them hard at the table. We have heard much from Treasury Board president Tony Clement over the past several months, bemoaning absenteeism. Let’s see how serious he really is about the improved attendance and productivity that safe and healthy workplaces encourage. The ball is in your court, Mr. Clement, and we’re looking forward to your positive response.

Robyn Benson, PSAC

Sick leave

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Stephen Harper has always been an admirer of America—or, to be more precise, Republican America. But, from attack ads to union busting to dirty election tricks, he always manages to borrow their worst ideas. OK, what about selecting a good one for a change?

While Treasury Board is at the bargaining table trying to snatch away our paid sick leave, paid sick leave for employees in the private sector (that’s right, Tony Clement) is becoming a trend in the US. Cities and states are deciding that every employer in their jurisdictions should pay sick leave to their employees. The recent mid-term elections added even more to this list. And those supporting this trend note that it’s good for workers and their families—and good for business, too.

In fact, since Minister Clement is always bringing this up, why don’t we look at what experts are saying about the private sector? Companies that have introduced paid sick leave have discovered that higher morale and productivity are the norm, and that sick leave is generally not abused. Medical experts agree: forcing employees to come in to work sick slows their own recovery, and puts their co-workers at risk. In fact some companies have gone even further, offering unlimited paid days off, whether for sickness, family emergency or vacation—and, contrary to what some might expect, abuse is rare.

Contrary to what Clement keeps insisting, there is no evidence that our members and federal public workers in general are abusing it: the facts, as established by Statistics Canada and in another report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, contradict his claims.

Treasury Board is demanding that paid sick leave be drastically cut and accrued credits be liquidated, and adding a new unpaid waiting period before a short-term disability plan comes into effect, to be managed by a private insurance company at considerable cost. Many of our members, living from paycheque to paycheque, would inevitably choose to come into work sick if this new policy is put into effect.

Management experts are not impressed by Clement’s assertion that “90 per cent of the private sector workforce” already has a similar system in place. “Show me the beef, Tony,” says Linda Duxbury, a professor of workforce management at Carleton’s Sprott School of Business. “Show me where you get your data for that whacking huge generalization.” She goes on to point out that some of the largest and most profitable private sector employers are much more flexible.

It’s not as though we have stubbornly refused to address health issues at the bargaining table. In a positive spirit, we have put forward serious proposals, including taking action on mental health, to make our workplaces healthier and therefore more productive. As yet, however, we have received no response from the employer, who seems to be far more interested in slashing benefits than in delivering quality public services to Canadians.

Members across the country need to demonstrate strong support for their bargaining teams, who can’t do what needs to be done all by themselves. This is everybody’s fight—and our health literally depends on it.

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