Doing the Right Thing

So what do you do if you come down with H1N1 influenza? Why, you come to work:

If the Alberta government is serious about slowing the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, it should amend the provincial Employment Standards Code to include protections for workers who follow the advice of public health authorities and stay home from work when they’re experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Without such protections, thousands of workers – especially those in low-wage, service sector jobs – will continue coming to work when they’re sick, thereby jeopardizing their own health and undermining efforts to bring the H1N1 pandemic under control.

That was the message delivered today by Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan to an audience of 500 registered nurses gathered in Edmonton to attend the United Nurses of Alberta’s annual general meeting.

“The employment standards codes in six other Canadian jurisdictions give workers the protections they need,” says McGowan.

“All of those codes say that workers cannot be disciplined, demoted or dismissed for taking time off work because of short-term illness. The Alberta code, on the other hand, doesn’t say anything at all about sick leave. As a result, workers whose employers don’t independently provide paid or unpaid sick leave – and we think that’s a majority or workers in Alberta – face the prospect of being punished for doing the right thing.

And not low-wage private sector jobs either. My own employer, Acme Regional Health — and I don’t think they’re unique in Toronto or in Ontario — actively and as a matter of policy punishes nurses taking sick days as a means of ensuring attendance. It’s said nurses have the highest sick time rate of any employment group. There are specific reasons for this: poor morale and stress are certainly factors, but the very nature of the job causes injury and illness. And hospital employers, rather than addressing the underlying issues related to sick time, choose to crack the whip, mostly, I think because it’s cheaper.

So, for example, nurses don’t get full pay when they take sick time: we are penalized by up to 1/3 of our pay, straight off our paycheques. And if we take more than a certain number of sick days in a year, we are further punished by a work-attendance programme — which is what we call it, The Programme — in which we are compelled (with union acquiescence) to attend any number of disciplinary meetings. For being sick.

All of which makes me wonder: how many nurses will come to work with H1N1? I know the high-minded and sanctimonious will argue that patient safety is paramount. Sick nurses should stay home. But a one-third cut in pay is a lot, and if it’s between being a one-income family, feeding your kids and paying your mortgage, and coming into work, pragmatically speaking, patient safety is going to take second place. Add on to these home-life pressures the subtle and not-so-subtle guilt, tacitly encouraged by hospital management, of letting down your colleagues by leaving them short-staffed.

Sick nurses will come to work. Which, I should add is exactly what hospital administrators hope, despite endless cant about patient safety.

Hospital wards everywhere provide the spectacle of the sick and injured caring for the sick and injured. It isn’t pretty. And again the question has to be asked: who cares for the nurses?


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  1. #1 by Ont-RN on Tuesday 03 November 2009 - 0947

    Well said.

    We work with sick people all day, every day. How can we be expected to stay healthy all the freaking time?!? And The Program is garbage -my hospital puts you on it if you call in sick more than 3 times in 365 days. You work with sick people, but DON”T YOU DARE GET SICK YOURSELF.

    I call bullshit.

  2. #2 by maha on Tuesday 03 November 2009 - 2226

    Tell me about it – I got flack for calling in sick 4 times this year. First 3 times was for flu like symptoms – cough, fever and my all time favourite – vomitting. I figured I should go back as soon as I was no longer febrile but that was a bad idea because I could barely move for the duration of my shift.

    Many of our porters and housekeeping staff are coming in sick as well because let’s face it – they’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed.

  3. #3 by paedsnurse on Tuesday 03 November 2009 - 2244

    Caring for the nurses? Psh. As if administration really cared for us. We’re still working on trying to get enough proper PPE! We haven’t run out of N-95 yet (thank god), but not enough eye shields when your patient is hacking up a lung is not pleasant.

    It seems a lot of staff (RNs, MDs, housekeeping, etc) are coming in with sniffly noses. It also doesn’t help that we’re starting to get understaffed due to all the sick calls with ILI (influenza-like illness).

  4. #4 by torontoemerg on Tuesday 03 November 2009 - 2250

    Was thinking too about the time I got Norwalk — definitely to be avoided — and the hospital requires you to have no loose stools for 48 hours before coming back to work. Which, of course, counts as your sick time.

    I’m not surprised you guys feel so strongly about this. This is an issue that makes me a leetle crazy.

  5. #5 by Kalanna on Wednesday 04 November 2009 - 1053

    someone needs to care for nurses. someone. anyone. please.

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