Sick of Garbage?

In City, Criticism, Financial on August 2, 2009 at 11:21 AM

After repeatedly trying to piece together some semblance of an article, I decided to go the old-fashioned route and write several blog entries. Some Nasal Observations:

I’ve been through two garbage strikes and I must admit this one smelt way better. During the last one it was actually so hot that you could smell the piled up garbage for miles. A stench-filled breeze drifted around the city and hit me each on my walk home from work, reminding me that this city’s got issues.

It was more contained this time around, despite the fact that the strike lasted longer. The city was prepared for it. I’m personally proud of Toronto business owners who took ownership of their streets, and violated the law, by collecting garbage they aren’t technically allowed to. Some found a way to get into the city receptacles and change the bags each day. Some strategically taped empty garbage bags so street litter would have a home. Thanks to them, my friends and I were still able to meander through the excruciatingly complicated process of picking a restaurant, the way we always did.

Sick Day History and Customs:

The issue that held up negotiations (as everyone probably knows by now) is the ability for city workers to aggregate sick days, and either receive a cash payout for them in the near term, or roll them forward in order to bank them for retirement, at which point a payment would be received.

This Toronto Star article provides us some history on the situation. Basically, imagine a time where the City of Toronto (and much of Ontario) was growing so fast that it was a problem retaining city employees. Any compensation policy that gears its rewards toward retirement is an attempt at keeping employees here for the long run. It was an indirect form of compensation, a perk, if you will. Traditionally, government worker salaries can’t compete with private salaries, so they offered indirect forms of compensation, and banking sick days is just a way to defer cash payments for the employer, but still provide a benefit for the employees.

It’s silly to debate whether or not someone should be able to bank a sick day and cash it in later. The answer is no. A sick day is an entitlement to an employee so that they don’t get a dock in pay should they miss work once in a while. Most of the people striking are garbage workers, and I fully understand the need for them to have more sick days than say, an office worker like me, because they are much more likely to get sick in that line of business. So it’s not about how many days they get, it’s the premise that they can translate unused sick days into cash.

But what annoyed me during all of this was people couldn’t get past that ability for them to bank sick days. It was unheard of. But I would just like to point out one thing: we all do this.

Everyone is guilty of is using up sick days before they expire. For most of us, we are entitled to a certain number of sick days, and we all find ourselves planning to be sick on Fridays and we get away with it because at the end of the day, it’s really no big deal, and after all, you are entitled to those sick days and you wouldn’t want them to expire. In effect, each sick day you use is deferring the use of a vacation day, and you are entitled by law to either receive vacation as time off, or in cash. This garbage situation is not so different fundamentally than some of the ordinary nickel-and-dime tactics we use to milk our respective employers. The major difference is that they talk about it openly and it is formalized in their contracts, whereas we bank our sick days in a more cloak and dagger fashion. Of course, that’s nickels and dimes, and this is millions of dollars – but I’m just saying.


A friend of mine was speaking with a lawyer who had a very interesting take on the entire matter. The argument was that the sick-day bank benefit was discriminating against sick people. While the relatively healthy could defer and bank their sick days, slowly padding their retirement plans, the people who were actually sick would have to forfeit this cash benefit.

Sick Day Psychology

I happen to work for a company that does not define how many sick days we are entitled to. The policy is simply to take a sick day when you need a sick day, and if you are sick for several days in a row, the short-term disability stuff will kick in. So in effect, it’s unlimited sick days. Contrast that with companies where they give you 5 or 10 days total. When you know you have 5 days, it’s much easier to figure out a way to “use them up,” by the end of the year, because they would all wash away and a new set of 5 would be awarded. But when there’s no number, there’s no unwritten rule that the employees have at our company with sick days, so we end up using them when we’re sick, and we look to each other to see what is normal. I just find it interesting that without a benchmark, people just end up being more honest with their sick days. At least that’s what I’m seeing.

Hurricane Hazel

Something I discovered recently was how the City of Mississauga, and its mayor Hazel McCallion had influenced this negotiation. I have always had a soft spot for the Hurricane. She started her political career in Streetsville, where I grew up. The ageless wonder has won the hearts of many Canadians for her political savvy, love of Hockey, and the fact that she still gets trashed at cocktail parties, like to the point where they have to carry her to the limo and send her home (granted, it’s usually around 9pm she is getting sent home, but let’s see how you do when you’re 88 years old).

It was in 1982 that Hazel took a hard stance against sick days and their bankability, at least for all new employees, and 27 years later the old-timers have dwindled down from 150 to less than 10.

Toronto has chosen the route to phase these liabilities out over time, so the old people that were banking these days can continue to do so, while the new people have new rules.

But I do want to warn our David Miller that taking the same line as Hazel did 27 years ago might not translate into the same results. Mississauga’s problem was relatively small compared to Toronto’s current situation where they have millions of dollars in sick pay to distribute. I ran some quick numbers to try and determine the relative wealth of the two municipalities:

Toronto: $901 tax revenue/person

Mississauga: $1,792 tax revenue/person

[If you care: I used property tax figures because that’s really the key funding tool any mayor has at his/her disposal. But since Toronto is much larger than Mississauga, I used per capita numbers for comparison.]

This simple math is the major reason why Hazel was adamant Mississauga wasn’t going to be a part of the GTA amalgamation. She knew a long time ago that they would end up bailing Toronto out of all financial jams because the tax revenue would be pooled.

  1. Yo! i doubt people at your office are more honest than the garbage folk. It's just no possible to show up to work when you're a garbage collector and sorta toss around some garbage. You do the job, or you don't. Office folk can come in even when they feel kinda crumby. They sit at their desks and take down some Ginkgo Biloba, switch into slippers and congregate by the watercooler. Trust. i watch The Office. Mad props for using the word Psychology in your blog.

  2. Thanks Nikki. I wasn't really comparing office jobs to garbage pickup, I was comparing different office jobs that I've had. Like, when I worked at companies that gave you 5 days a year for sick leave, there was an unwritten rule where you could take a friday off as "sick" if you didn't have much to do and nobody would miss you. Now when there's no defined limit, that attitude isn't there. There's no lingering feeling that those days will be wasted if I don't use them. You know? I don't know what you psych folks call that. Framing?

  3. I think the `sick day buyout` issue was a smoke-screen for the real issue.I heard a number of references to the idea that once a concession is won, it can never be lost. This is a political problem; an interesting miniature of every system in which representation is reduced to an imitation of sports.

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