Permanent paid sick leave? Don’t hold your breath

The Houston government has brought back the Liberals COVID sick leave program to deal with the latest pandemic emergency. Why won’t they make the program permanent? We’re glad you asked.

Men with cake
Back in 2018, Premier Stephen McNeil came to Pictou County to celebrate the latest Michelin expansion. Buried in paragraph nine of the news release announcement was the obligatory thank you to the Province of Nova Scotia “for its support”: this time a $3.56-million “innovation rebate,” as well as some unspecified additional cash from some often-picked provincial pocket for “training some of the new employees for these projects.” Nothing changes.

On Monday, January 10, 2022 — with the highly contagious Omicron variant spawning more and more COVID-related illnesses and forcing more and more workers to take time away from their jobs because they’re sick, getting tested, getting vaccinated, taking care of ailing family members and the rest — Nova Scotia’s temporary paid sick leave program made a welcome, if probably still temporary return visit.

You might assume Nova Scotia’s largest private-sector employer — with more than 3,000 employees in three different plants scattered across the province — would be quick to make sure its workers were aware of this updated program and how to access it.

You would assume wrong.

“Michelin?” says the voice on the other end of the telephone with a laugh that is not intended to be funny. “Not a chance.”

Even before the new program was announced, a number of Michelin’s Nova Scotia employees had reached out to the Examiner to express their frustration with the company’s paternalistic, often capricious approaches to providing sick leave for its workers.

Michelin? Let’s take a step back.

The French tire giant has a long and complicated history in this province.

The company was lured to Nova Scotia more than 50 years ago as part of then-Premier Robert Stanfield’s scheme-dream to attract job-generating mega-projects that would give us a “foot in the door of the future.”

Many of those scheme-dreams turned out to be expensive nightmares, others went under, taking our money down with them; the rest ultimately petered out and disappeared.

Michelin, by contrast, is not simply still here — by my calculations, the only one of those companies of our “future” that’s still around — but it continues to provide several thousand well-paying, relatively secure jobs in a rural Nova Scotia that does not boast nearly enough of them.

That said, Nova Scotians have paid a price for Michelin’s success here.

As an economics textbook once explained it, the Nova Scotia government back in the 1960s made Michelin “an offer that could not be refused.” (I wrote this story about Michelin’s early years in Nova Scotia for the Financial Post Magazine in 1980.)

Start with $89 million in government grants — we’re talking the 1960s! — plus low-interest loans, tax breaks, fast write-offs on all land and building costs and various sorts of other financial jiggery-pokery.

When all was cashed and carried, taxpayers had forked over roughly two-thirds of Michelin’s total initial investment in Nova Scotia.

But that was just the beginning.

There have been many dances over the years in which Michelin threatens — to move, to not expand, to do this or not do that — and the government caves, offering the company whatever it wants if only it will just… stay, please, stay, don’t go.

There have been other costs too.

Michelin has traditionally been so notoriously secretive it once refused to let Charles de Gaulle’s bodyguards past its plant’s front gates when the French president came to visit. It treated Nova Scotia politicians with similar do-my-bidding disdain.

It assumed — correctly, as it turned out — politicians here would the company’s bidding too.

That often involved rewriting our laws to help Michelin keep unions from organizing its workers. In fact, during the company’s first decade in Nova Scotia, governments of different political stripes passed three separate pieces of major legislation specifically aimed at enabling the company to keep trade unions at bay.

Nothing much has changed.

When the NDP camera to power in 2009, it turned its back on a long-standing party commitment to repeal the 1979 Michelin Bill, which had made it virtually impossible for unions to organize workers at any of Michelin Tire’s three Nova Scotia plants.

Although the NDP did pass legislation in 2011 providing for first contract arbitration to protect workers who chose to join a union and whose employer then refused to bargain in good faith, that legislation came under sustained fire from a big employers’ group dominated by — who else? — Michelin.

When Stephen McNeil’s Liberals defeated the NDP in 2013, one of their first orders of business was to repeal the NDP legislation.

I tell you all of this, in part, because any hope the Houston government will make its temporary COVID sick leave program permanent hinges largely on the views of big employers, none bigger than Michelin.

If Michelin objects — and it will — then that won’t happen.

According to the employees I spoke to, Michelin employees are allowed to take two consecutive sick days a year at 2/3 of their regular wage. If they work eight-hour shifts, that means they can claim two consecutive shifts, or two days. But if they happen to normally work 12-hour shifts, as many Michelin employees do, the company counts just one 12-hour shift as two different days. One shift and your two days’ sick leave have been used up.

Are you with me?

If an employee has to take those two days’ sick leave within one calendar year, then they don’t qualify for paid sick leave for the whole next year. Not that the company tells them that upfront. They only find out they don’t qualify after they’re sick.

The employees told me there is no written, easily accessible sick leave policy they can consult. Whicj means the system is often subject to the whims of their Business Unit Leaders (BULs, in Michelin speak). If workers complain, the issue may occasionally be bumped up the line to a supervisor where it will languish and die.

No written policy? Really. That seemed hard to believe. So I contacted Michelin’s Granton office to ask for a copy of the company’s sick leave policy.

The spokesperson asked for “a little more information to help me understand the focus of your article.” When I explained, I got this response:

As a matter of company practice, we don’t share our corporate policies externally. However, I can tell you that since the beginning of the pandemic the health and well-being of our employees has been a primary concern. To that end we implemented multiple practices during the pandemic, including health and safety protocols as well as those that support employees who are unable to work because of reasons related to COVID-19. These practices and protocols continue to be evaluated and evolve as the pandemic continues.

We’ll come back to the rest, but I still wanted to get an answer to my initial question.

Thanks for that. If I can follow up. Are individual employees provided with physical or digital copies of company sick leave policies? If they ask for copies, will they be provided?

The spokesperson responded quickly:

Employees have access to information on all benefits, including sick leave.

I tried again.

One more question. Without getting into the details of your general corporate policies, can you tell me how many paid sick days an hourly based employee is entitled to per year?

The response:

Hi Stephen, I hope you had a nice weekend. We don’t have anything further to add at this time.

And that was that.

According to employees I spoke to, since COVID they have been required to pass through a temperature check and fill out an “I-have-no…” checklist card before they begin their shifts. If they have a fever or answer no to any of the questions on the form, they are instructed to “remain off-site, complete the NS COVID-19 self-assessment online or call 811 and then call Gatehouse 753-1110.”

One employee told me he knows of another worker who was instructed to continue working in spite of being a close contact of someone who’d been in close contact with a COVID-postive person.

I would have followed up with the company but… see above.

But here’s a thing.

Michelin’s two seemingly arbitrary semi-paid sick days are, in fact, better than the three unpaid sick days the Nova Scotia Labour Standards legislation normally requires employers to provide.

As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted in its recent report, No Nova Scotian Should Have to Work Sick, our current standard is “among the worst in the country.”

The CCPA has called on the Nova Scotia government to transform its temporary, government-funded, four-day maximum COVID sick leave program into a “universal, paid, adequate permanent, accessible, employer provided” paid sick leave of up to 10 days a year without the requirement of a doctor’s note.

There are all sorts of good reasons why it should do exactly that.

Explains the CCPA:

Employers should not have the right to employ workers under conditions that compromise health and safety and then pass the costs off to the public. From a logistical perspective, when employers provide paid sick leave, it reduces the possibilities of gaps or delays in pay, which is particularly important for precarious workers and low-wage workers. Finally, just as vacation and public holidays are employer-paid, paid sick days should be covered by the employer.”

COVID, of course, has made paid sick leave a more pressing issue for society and for workers of all sorts, especially frontline and low-paid workers.

It’s not an issue that will disappear when the pandemic recedes.

British Columbia recently passed legislation requiring every employer in that province to give their employees five paid sick days per year.

Might Nova Scotia follow suit?

Probably not. Not as long as our politicians are the captives of companies like Michelin.

And they are. Still.

***

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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