Doctor’s Notes Requirements for Ill Employees Debated in Canada

By Catherine Skrzypinski Feb 12, 2014

Employees in Canada who are feeling under the weather should stay in bed, rather than venturing out to work or even to a medical facility, doctors recommend.

The president of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) advised employersin Ontario to stop asking for mandatory doctor’s notes from sick workers, as the flu season is now at its peak.

“Employers should encourage workers to stay home when sick,” Dr. Scott Wooder, OMA president, said in a statement. “… Requiring sick notes has a discouraging effect and forces patients into the doctor’s office when they are sick, which only encourages the spread of germs to those in the waiting room.”

Doctors Nova Scotia, a professional association representing physicians in the province, quickly followed suit, stating that supervisors who require staff to deliver medical notes for missed time put an added burden on the Canadian health care system.

The doctors prescribed rest and drinking fluids as the best remedies for a patient suffering from the common cold, influenza or a virus.

The Business Case for Sick Notes

At least half of Canadian employers require a doctor’s note, said Karla Thorpe, director of leadership and human resources research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen in January 2014.

Thorpe added that a doctor’s note gives a company important information about the nature and extent of an illness and how long an employee will need to recuperate away from the office.

Employment lawyers in Canada argue that businesses require medical notes to vouch for workers absences for record-keeping purposes as well as to keep their costs in line.

“Employees are only permitted to call in sick when they are disabled from working or contagious, not when they are feeling a little off,” Howard Levitt, a senior partner at Levitt & Grosman LLP in Toronto, wrote in his National Post workplace law column in January 2014.

Levitt pointed to research from the Conference Board in September 2013 revealing that illness in the Canadian workforce cost more than 16 billion Canadian dollars in 2012. He believes that the costs of absenteeism would escalate if doctor’s notes weren’t required.

Another Toronto-based employment solicitor, Arthur Zeilikman, suggested that allowing employees to stay home without proof of sickness could be problematic and could lead individuals to abuse sick leave.

The rights of both parties should be respected, cautioned Stuart E. Rudner, founding partner of Rudner MacDonald LLP in Toronto.

“I always encourage employers to reserve the discretion to require doctor’s notes at any time,” Rudner wrote to SHRM Online. “Of course, they must do so in a reasonable manner and avoid targeting or harassing particular employees or groups of employees. Conversely, some organizations have particularly oppressive policies that require a doctor’s note for each and every absence; they may want to reconsider whether that is effective.”

Calling in Sick?

Employers’ policies for sick notes vary throughout Canada.

At Canada Post, postal workers are eligible for seven days of personal leave. Once they exhaust those days, they may go on short-term disability, during which 70 percent of their salaries are covered.

Teachers with the Toronto District School Board need a doctor’s note after taking five consecutive sick days, but they can be asked for one earlier if there are concerns about the absence.

In contrast, the Toronto Transit Commission, the city’s public-transport system, requires workers to get a doctor’s note after just one day of illness.

According to Canadian labor law, employees who have worked for three consecutive months at the same organization are entitled to sick-leave protection. However, this protection guarantees job security only and does not include a paid leave of absence.

The Institute of Professional Management in Ottawa outlines employment standards legislation adopted by each province regarding sick leave:

  • Unpaid sick leave: Federal jurisdiction,Nova Scotia,Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan.
  • Five days paid sick leave: New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • One paid sick day per month: Yukon.
  • No provisions in their employment standards legislation for sick leave: Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

In Ontario employers are not required to provide unpaid or paid sick leave or paid benefits plans for sickness. Workers at organizations with 50 or more employees, though, are entitled to up to 10 days of unpaid personal emergency leave under the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

“I can’t imagine that legislation would change regarding paid sick leave in Canada,” Cissy Pau, CHRP, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, said to SHRM Online. “This will stay in the hands of employers.”

Trust Your Employees

Rudner told SHRM Online that he hopes this sick-note request by medical professions will cause employers and HR professionals in Canada to reconsider their current policies and assess whether they are meeting the needs of the organization.

“Many organizations have policies relating to absences that were copied from other organizations or implemented without much thought,” Rudner explained. “For example, some only allow the employer to require a medical note after three consecutive days of absence, even when other absences are suspicious.”

Pau advises HR professionals on how to prevent and control absenteeism:

  • Honesty policy. Managers should reassure their employees that they trust them, and allow them to take the time they need to get better. This way, she said, employees will be more engaged.
  • Target goals. Instead of tracking absences and hours worked on a companywide calendar, HR should allow employees to meet objectives on their own schedule.
  • Flexible scheduling. HR should consider offering teleworking to responsible and accountable employees. If someone is engaged, Pau explained, she will power through work with a cold, either in her cubicle or in the comfort of her home office.

“The issue with doctor’s notes all goes back to the culture of the company and if there’s a level of trust between employees,” Pau concluded. “If people are happy at work, then there will be less absenteeism.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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