Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Time to double sick leave

The CTU is planning to mount a campaign to double sick leave, from 5 to 10 days a year. Good. We've all just had an extremely strong reminder of the need to stay at home when sick, and of the effectiveness of doing so (the lockdown, social distancing, and responsible attitude to disease ATM has absolutely crushed seasonal flu as well as protecting us from the pandemic). But the current sick leave entitlement of a mere 5 days does not enable this. Nor does the intrusive provision allowing employers to demand proof of illness. And then there's the problems caused by "lean staffing" - AKA employer cheapness - which lets employers guilt workers into coming into work when sick, because if they don't their co-workers will suffer (because the employer hasn't ensured there are sufficient staff to cope with people being away). The result is that disease spreads. We can all think of a time when someone came into work when sick, because they were out of leave, or felt they had to, or just stupid, and then everybody got it. And that needs to stop.

But in order for that to happen, we need to actually enable people to do the right thing. And that means ensuring they have plenty of no-questions-asked sick leave, and that they can actually take it. The first is the easy bit: it requires changing one number in one section of law (and two more numbers if you want to increase carry-over to match the increased entitlement). Ensuring that people can actually use their entitlement will require a shift in management styles. As for how to do that, public health is already recognised as a workplace health and safety issue, included in an employer's obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. Policies, practices, or a workplace culture which endanger public health by encouraging people to infect others violate an employer's primary duty of care under that Act. And that's punishable by a $500,000 fine - or $1.5 million if it is deemed to expose people to a risk of serious illness (like, say, COVID-19). So my solution to changing workplace culture is for Worksafe to actually enforce the law, and start prosecuting and fining employers over this. On the other end, workers should refuse to work when sick if they are able to, and complain to their unions (join a union!), or complain directly to Worksafe if their employer's practices are unsafe. Hopefully a few investigations and prosecutions will sharpen employer's minds, and force them to eliminate their present unsafe practices.

You can sign the CTU's petition in support of their campaign here.