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PoliticsJune 5, 2020

Should we get more than five days’ sick leave a year?

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The union movement launched a push earlier this week to double the legal minimum of sick leave from five days a year to 10. Is a change likely?

What’s all this then?

In light of the recent global pandemic putting the focus on health in the workplace, unions have called for changes to how much sick leave workers are allocated and how it can be used.

What are their demands?

There are five in total, according to a Council of Trade Unions petition that was launched earlier this week. They are:

  1. Extend the Covid-19 Leave Support Scheme for the next year, make it easy to access, and cover anyone with Covid-19 symptoms, including those who are waiting to be referred to testing or get results.
  2. Increase legal minimum paid sick leave from five to 10 days over the next year, with support from the government to help small businesses make the change.
  3. Make sick leave available if people need to care for their dependents like their children and their parents.
  4. Remove the six-month stand-down to access sick leave when you start a new job.
  5. Get rid of the previous government’s law change that can require a doctor’s certificate after just one day of sick leave.

The Unite Union has also been talking about this issue, putting out a release last month calling for more sick leave specifically for fast food workers.

Hang on, what is the Covid-19 Leave Support Scheme?

It’s a fund that employers can apply for if they need help to support workers who’ve tested positive for Covid-19, been in contact with someone with Covid-19, or are at a higher risk if they get Covid-19. It lasts for four weeks and is administered in a similar way and at a similar rate to the wage subsidy.

There’s an important point of context here: employers claiming the Covid-19 Leave Support Scheme are not allowed to also require those employees to use up other leave entitlements. So in practice, someone who self-isolated for a fortnight after coming into contact with a Covid-19 carrier would still have their annual entitlement of sick leave.

So why is now being chosen as the time to push for this?

In a release, the CTU said “the experience of Covid-19 has taught us how important it is that people stay home when they are sick”. We tend to be a stoic bunch in New Zealand, and many don’t bother taking sick leave unless it’s absolutely necessary.

For those who do take it and then run out, that can quickly leave them stuck, said CTU president Richard Wagstaff. “For most people that have used their sick leave entitlement, the choice is to go to work sick or stay home and not be paid. Most people cannot afford to go without a day’s pay. So many will be forced to go to work sick.”

Are there any stats on how many people actually use up their full sick leave entitlements every year?

Not really, and that would be incredibly difficult to calculate. The reason for this is that many workers have sick leave entitlements written into their contracts above the legal minimum – for example, many public servants get 10 days. The CTU argues that many of those with more sick leave have it because they’re part of a collective agreement, so under their reasoning, an increase to the legal minimum is necessary to protect those workers who aren’t.

A report conducted by Business NZ in 2013 found that on average, about four-and-a-half days of sick leave per worker per year were taken, and that number was above six for the public sector. It also indicated that there was an annual cost to the economy of more than a billion dollars from taking sick leave, which seems like a slightly shakily framed number in light of a highly infectious pandemic. After all, it’s less clear what it would cost a business if half their workforce came down with a virus in the same week.

What about contractors? Do they even get sick leave?

No, they don’t, which means that for many contractors, being sick means not being paid.

Is five days minimum a low number? Do other countries get more?

It depends on where you look and if there are other provisions that need to be included. For example, in the US, there’s no federally mandated minimum of sick leave provision. In Australia, by comparison, workers are entitled to a minimum of 10 days a year. In Germany, the provisions are especially generous – provided an employee gets a medical certificate, they’re entitled to up to six weeks of paid sick leave per illness.

How have politicians responded to this, and is it possible that the law will change?

At this stage, it seems unlikely. Newshub reported earlier in the week that the government had no plans to look at this area, with employment relations minister Iain Lees-Galloway saying it was a matter for employees and employers to negotiate between themselves.

As for whether the law would change under a new government, it seems highly unlikely given National’s employment relations spokesperson came out with this:

Followed by this swift clarification:

If the sick leave provisions were increased to 10 days a year, wouldn’t more people just take the piss with fake sickies?

Search your own conscience on this – would you do that to your colleagues?

Keep going!