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Teachers gathered in large numbers in front of the Minister of Education Offices on Bay Street in Toronto in this Jan. 15, 2013, file photo. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Teachers gathered in large numbers in front of the Minister of Education Offices on Bay Street in Toronto in this Jan. 15, 2013, file photo. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

In fight over banked sick days, a widening fairness gap is exposed Add to ...

You can’t put illness in the bank.

So why is it that a fortunate few Canadian workers can cash in thousands of dollars of unused sick days when they retire?

Ontario teachers have done a masterful job of convincing the public their long stare-down with the Ontario government is about the right to bargain collectively.

That’s part of it. But it’s also a fight to hang on to historic perks that are a rarity in Canada, including the right to be reimbursed for not being sick.

The seven-month-long dispute has exposed something much more disquieting: the widening fairness gap in the Canadian workplace. Thousands of public sector workers enjoy high salaries, guaranteed pensions and special perks that other Canadians will never get, regardless of how long or hard they work.

Public sector workers argue they’ve earned these gains through decades of tough negotiations with employers. And once promised, governments should not unilaterally revoke them. Fair enough. But it’s not an argument that’s likely to sway many Canadians, who exist in a parallel universe.

The ability to bank and monetize sick days is virtually unheard of in the private sector. Less than 3 per cent of the 1,336 private sector plans in Mercer Canada Ltd.’s client database allow employees to bank sick days, according to figures supplied to The Globe and Mail. That compares to 28 per cent of the 407 government plans tracked by the benefits consultant.

No wonder Ontario teachers chanted “respect teachers, respect collective bargaining,” while they suspended school sports, plays and other extracurricular activities for millions of students in recent months. “Cash for sick days” doesn’t have the same populist appeal.

Many public sector contracts are relics of an era when governments, the economy and the workforce were growing rapidly. But Ottawa and most provinces are now facing stubborn budget deficits and stagnant tax revenue.

Government contracts have fallen out of step with the workplace norm. A recent study by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank, found that Ontario public sector workers are paid more, are more likely to have guaranteed pensions, retire earlier and have better job security than their private sector counterparts.

On average, government workers earned 14 per cent more than private sector workers in 2011. The study controlled for such variables as gender, age, education, tenure, size of organization, job type and industry.

The study also found “strong indications” that government workers enjoy richer non-wage benefits, including vacations, sick pay and pensions. More than three quarters of public sector workers in Ontario are covered by registered workplace pension plans, virtually all of them defined benefit plans guaranteeing set benefits in retirement. Just 26 per cent of private sector workers have any kind of workplace pension.

Private-sector workers in Ontario were also five times more likely than government workers to lose their job in 2011.

The wage and pension gap is even wider country-wide, according to the Fraser Institute.

But the pendulum is swinging back. Ontario’s elementary and high school teachers are taking major haircuts, in spite of the concessions the government offered recently to convince teachers to resume extracurricular activities.

High school teachers with less than 10 years of experience would still get up to $3,000 for their unused days, instead of zero under the imposed contract. Teachers with more seniority will get half of what they were previously entitled – sometimes as much as $46,000.

And going forward, public school teachers in Ontario will no longer be allowed to bank their days.

Ontario is just a prelude to a fight that’s looming at the federal level, and in other provinces. Public sector unions have already warned they won’t let Ottawa renege on the estimated $5-billion worth of banked sick days owed to civil servants.

Ottawa wants to cut to as few as five of the 15 sick days a year, which civil servants can carry over indefinitely.

Public sector unions may prefer to see governments as amorphous cash dispensers.

They are not. Governments are stewards of tax revenues for Canadians, who know unfairness when they see it.

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Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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