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Shalini Sheth, director of operations for Surati Sweet Mart in Toronto, worries that new, expanded Ontario rules on emergency leave for employees could cause some of her workers to abuse the system.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

New Ontario labour laws that allow employees to take up to 10 personal emergency-leave days a year, two of them paid, have business owners scrambling to cover shifts at the last minute – and some say that's putting their operations at risk.

Business owners across the province say employees are using – and potentially abusing – the new rules that took effect Jan. 1. The changes, part of Bill 148, apply to all businesses in the province and any worker that has been on the job for at least a week.

Previously, the legislation applied only to businesses with 50 or more workers and employees had the right to take up to 10 days each year due to illness, injury or personal emergencies, but they were all unpaid. The new rules also say employees need to provide "evidence reasonable in the circumstances" but don't have to provide a note from a doctor, nurse or psychologist to explain why they couldn't work, which business owners argue make staff less accountable.

Owners are especially concerned about the extra cost that comes with paying for personal emergency leave (PEL) days, especially companies with high staff turnover, as well as the impact on the operations when staff don't show up.

Doug Duncan, managing partner of an Ottawa-based Priority Patient Services – which transfers non-emergency patients between hospitals and care homes – has seen a spike in PEL days since the start of the year. He says seven workers took a PEL day in the first 12 days of January, which is 23 per cent of his 30-person employee roster. In the last half of January, 10 per cent of staff took a PEL day. There were five PEL days taken on Super Bowl Sunday and the following Monday.

"We are worried people can't rely on us at the last minute," says Mr. Duncan, who would have preferred emergency leave be paid after a longer period of employment. His staff includes mostly recent paramedic and first-responder graduates looking for experience before taking a job in their chosen profession, which means a turnover of about 100 per cent about every seven months.

"As it stands this is punitive to business and encourages employees to use this for non-emergency leave since no reason can be questioned by the employer," Mr. Duncan says.

In January over all, Mr. Duncan's company paid out $1,764 in PEL days, which is 10 days of leave (12-hour shifts) at an average salary of $14.70 per hour, based on blended hourly wage rates he pays. That doesn't include the cost of covering missing staff.

Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs for Ontario at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says her organization received a flood of calls – triple the normal volume – in January, most of which were related to the PEL days.

"We aren't questioning if the employee is legitimately taking the days or not," says Ms. Kwiecinski, "but it's magnified in a small business. It's a challenge."

Deena Ladd, co-ordinator at the Workers' Action Centre in Toronto, says the new laws help protect workers from feeling they have to go to work sick – and potentially spread it to others – or even when they're stressed due to a family emergency.

"So many times we have workers telling us that they had to go to work sick with the flu because they could not afford to take a day off," Ms. Ladd says. "We need to recognize that not providing the ability for workers to take care of themselves and their family is a cost to business and the health care system."

Shalini Sheth, director of operations at Surati Sweet Mart in Scarborough, in Toronto's east end, says her company already accommodated employees for personal emergencies and worries the new rules could cause some to abuse the system.

"The people who really do need it are the ones who would have been given it anyway," says Ms. Sheth, whose Indian fried snacks and baked goods company employs 125 employees who work across two shifts, five days a week. "For the government to say 'Now you have to do it like this,' I hate to say it but people will take advantage … We haven't seen it yet, but it's always at the back of my mind."

There are also risks to her business: Ms. Sheth says if more than two people on their six-person fry line were to take a PEL day at the same time, the operation would have to shut down. The same risk applies to its bakery division. As a result of Bill 148, the company has put in place a contingency plan to keep the lines going, including pulling staff from other divisions.

"All of our lines are dependent on each other and are interconnected. At the end any slowdown will have a negative impact on our sales and customer requirements," she says.

Peter Mohr, owner of Shoetopia Footwear, which employs 23 people across its Ontario stores in Fergus, Waterloo and Mount Forest, paid out four PEL days in January, between two employees. One was sick and the other took a personal leave for a death in the family.

"If someone has bereavement, we let them go," prior to the new rules, he says, adding that some employees were paid for PEL days in the past, depending on the circumstance. It's the legislation to force business owners to pay that bothers him – and the cost.

Mr. Mohr crunched some numbers based on the $14 minimum wage (he pays some staff more) and an eight-hour shift and says he would have to pay $112 a day per employee that takes a PEL day – which is $224 per person per year. With 23 employees that's $5,152 a year in PEL costs alone, or 46 days.

"It would be like someone taking 46 days off this year, and me paying them. I get no more revenue for that, but it's a cost. I have to make it up somewhere," Mr. Mohr says.

By his math, given that wages account for about 15 to 18 per cent of gross revenues, Mr. Mohr says he would have to sell an additional $34,346 in shoes a year to cover the costs for those two PEL days each year. "We have to do more business, but how can we when already people are struggling to maintain the business they have, let alone grow, in today's economy," he says.

Protesters rallied Wednesday at several Tim Hortons locations against cuts some outlets made to employee breaks and benefits after Ontario’s minimum wage hike. Toronto demonstrators explain why they don’t support a boycott.

The Canadian Press

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