Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Division unmoved on sick notes

Teachers union eyes legal action

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For the Winnipeg School Division, it's a question of whether its teachers and staff were lying.

For the teachers union, it's a line of questioning that might lead to legal action against their employer.

The snow from the Jan. 25 blizzard has long been cleared away, but the controversy surrounding the fact hundreds of employees of the province's largest school division called in sick on that day isn't going away.

In fact, school board chairwoman Jackie Sneesby said Thursday staff will lose a day's pay if they can't find a doctor to write them a note.

"Why would you apply for the job if you knew you would have trouble getting to work in the winter? It's not news we get snowstorms in winter," Sneesby said. "It's dishonest.

"I'd have no problem giving sympathy to people who are honest and say, 'I live in Birds Hill and can't get out,' " Sneesby said. "Lying to the board doesn't make me feel good.

"We expect when they sign a contract, they'll be able to get to work."

More than 800 employees called in sick on the day of the blizzard a week ago Monday. The human resources department told trustees about 200 staff are sick on an average day, she said.

Sneesby said the division cannot tell people where to live, but it can determine who was sick and who just took a snow day. A teacher who cannot produce a doctor's note can take a day without pay, use a vacation day or a professional development day, she said.

"That's only if they're not telling the truth. Each one will be looked at in a very individual way -- what happened?

"This is not a good scenario," Sneesby said. "This is a wake-up call for us."

Winnipeg Teachers Association president Dave Najduch said 203 teachers literally got called into the principal's office this past Tuesday to be handed letters demanding they produce a doctor's note or face the loss of a day's pay.

It's the first time Najduch can ever recall the division taking such action.

"We're currently talking with legal counsel," Najduch said. "We've expressed our great displeasure with the division. It's looking more and more like we're taking some kind of legal action." Sneesby said she's not sure how many teachers and other employees have been served letters and could not say why some employees' calling in sick has been accepted -- though she noted there are staff on long-term illness.

Sneesby said the division also had to call in substitute teachers to cover off the sick teachers, though there weren't enough available to cover everyone who called in sick. The Canadian Union of Public Employees has already filed a grievance after many non-teaching staff received the same threat, said Local 110 president Terry Egan.

Najduch said the WTA is not aware of any other division demanding a doctor's note from its employees for blizzard-day absence.

The contract calls for a doctor's note after three days' absence, he said, but the division can also request a doctor's note for any absence -- and the contract does not place any limitation on how long after the absence the employer is allowed to make the request.

The division has long had a stormy and confrontational relationship with its unionized workers, but has been going through a period of calm in the last couple of years.


City, provincial workers braved the blizzard

TEACHERS may be the only public sector workers with unusually high sick-out rates during last week's blizzard.

City hall reported 182 of its 6,938 full-time staffers called in sick during the Jan. 25 storm. That's almost exactly the normal amount. The Friday before the storm, 175 city workers called in sick and the day after the blizzard 181 people were off with illnesses.

The provincial government doesn't keep a central registry of sick days.

The count is kept by each department, but officials there said there was no noticeable uptick in sick time.

It was the same story at Manitoba Public Insurance, where sick calls were "minimal," according to a spokesman.

The city's two big universities also don't have an exact count but said the few staff who didn't make it to work took banked time or holidays.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2010 B2

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