A human rights case involving a dental receptionist in British Columbia has sparked debates on whether labour law should be amended to include sick leave, but small businesses are pushing back.
In B.C. as in many provinces across Canada, labour law does not stipulate mandatory paid or unpaid sick leave. Employees can also be dismissed for taking sick leave.
“No one should have to go to work when they’re sick,” said Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, adding that illness can spread to healthy workers.
The province’s Ministry of Labour said it was reviewing its Employment Law Standards and would update its employment standards next year.
Meanwhile, Ontario is examining the issue and is looking at including up to 10 sick days per year, two of them paid.
Case in point
In 2016, Katelyn Hagel was a receptionist for a dental clinic owned by Dr. Danial Deheshi in Burnaby. She became sick with an undisclosed illness. A decision filed at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal said her symptoms were varied and predictable, causing her to miss 11 full and three partial days of work over a period of eight weeks.
One day, Hagel texted her office manager, Fereshta Deheshi, to say she was not feeling well. The latter replied she should stay home and rest until her surgery in two weeks. Hagel said she could not afford to stop working until then.
Sensing that her job was in danger, she went online and applied for a job on Craigslist. The job turned out to be at the same clinic where she worked.
The Deheshis fired Hagel the next day, saying she had embellished her duties at the clinic on her resume.
But Hagel complained before the human rights tribunal on the basis of physical disability. She said her employer pressured her to unpaid sick leave even as she was able to work.
Tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz, in her decision, acknowledged that staffing issues in a small office can be a challenge when an employee is unpredictably sick.
The Deheshis, however, had not provided enough evidence that they had accommodated Hagel to the point of undue hardship.
Labour and human rights lawyer Elizabeth Reid said the tribunal considers various factors in deciding similar cases: the size of the office, as well as the nature of the illness and its impact on other staff and the business.
“One thing that is challenging for everyone involved is that there are no hard and fast rules,” Reid said.
Still, providing paid and unpaid sick leave would be costly for many entrepreneurs, according to Richard Truscott, B.C. and Alberta vice president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“Small businesses often operate on very thin margins in very competitive markets,” he said.
Many small businesses can’t accommodate sick employees in the same way as larger organizations, even as many include this in their benefits packages to attract talent.
But while employers are entitled to this flexibility, “any time governments make it more difficult for small businesses to succeed, that’s definitely worrisome,” he said.