While sick leave is intended to allow employees who are temporarily ill to recover at home without losing pay, a short-term disability leave program is intended to bridge the gap from sick leave to long term disability for employees who, unfortunately, experience a serious or critical illness. 7 years ago, the government imposed a new plan on employees of school boards which eliminated sick leave banks for those who had unused sick days from previous years. This change saved the school boards $1.4 billion dollars but the legislation was deemed illegal in a charter challenge.
The government and school board associations are now attacking the new sick leave/short term disability plan as too costly. The current plan for OSSTF/FEESO members includes 11 sick days and 120 short-term disability days. The government and school boards’ bargaining position is to reduce the wages earned by education workers who are so seriously ill or injured they require short term disability. The government and school board associations have produced data that states the average number of days taken by employees is too high. However, an average sick leave usage number, calculated by dividing the total number of days lost to illness or injury by the total number of education workers paints an inaccurate picture. Even those with only a cursory knowledge of mathematics will recognize that such a calculation is skewed by the most vulnerable workers, those who suffer from the most severe illnesses, such as cancer, heart disorders, MS and other chronic conditions, forced to utilize a larger number of sick days. A closer examination of the data demonstrates that the majority of education workers use a lot fewer sick days than the 11 provided.
While the government and school boards claim they are concerned about continuity of service, the focus appears to be strictly on costs. There has been no attempt to analyse the root causes of sick leave nor to recommend alternative approaches including ways to create healthy and safe working environments. Instead, we hear about the “direct salary costs” of employees on sick leave. They have certainly failed entirely to explain how cutting financial support to sick employees provides greater consistency and continuity for students.
OSSTF/FEESO is truly interested in ensuring consistency of program, improving the workplace culture and improving the health of education workers, and believes the parties should work together to address the root causes of absenteeism. Education workers, especially Educational Assistants and ECEs, who work in close contact with young children are exposed more often to cold and flu viruses and other infectious diseases. A lack of funding has left many older school buildings in a state of disrepair creating health and safety issues that lead to accidents and illness. Funding shortfalls lead to reduced staffing to clean and maintain school buildings, creating unhealthy working conditions. A significant source of injury and subsequent mental illness is the escalating violence in schools, largely perpetrated by students, and often those with special needs. According to a recent study from the University of Ottawa, there has been a seven-fold increase in violence against educators in the past 12 years. A recent report in the Globe and Mail showed that educators at the Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest school district, logged 3,831 reports of workplace violence over the past academic year, up from 1,894 reports in 2014-15. The Hamilton Spectator reported that in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, violent incidents requiring first aid, heath care and time off work increased from 141 incidents in 2017-18 to 192 in 2018-19, suffered largely by EAs.
Instead of punishing those who are the victims of violence, mostly women, or those who have suffered severe illness or injury, by gutting the short term disability plan, the government and school board associations should be engaging with OSSTF/FEESO to consider ways of reducing and preventing violence, accidents and injury. The best way is to ensure there are adequate numbers of trained educators with the supports needed to work with vulnerable and high needs students.
In 2017-18, OSSTF/FEESO proposed a pilot project that would provide assistance to members who are on short term disability. The Member Assistance Program (MAP) was launched in October 2018 as joint initiative between OSSTF/FEESO, OPSBA and OTIP with the participation of 5 school boards. 249 participants received funding for treatment, confidential support and information about resources in their local communities. The results were overwhelmingly positive. More than 50% of participants achieved a healthy state of wellness and returned to work full time. The government refused to provide any funding to support this initiative. The final report of the pilot can be accessed below.
OSSTF/FEESO will propose the expansion of the program to include all school boards and the support of the government, thus turning the focus to assisting members to return to work safely and sustainably, rather than punishing members who suffer from severe illness and injury.