I was in a grocery store in December, at the express checkout, and the cashier was a woman who appeared to be in her mid or late 40s. She was someone with a friendly smile, the kind of person you immediately like. So I said hello, and we started chitchatting. The usual small talk that, in my mind, makes life better, since I believe that connecting with strangers is generally a good thing.
And then the woman suddenly turned away, grabbed a Kleenex, and sneezed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm fighting off a cold."
"That's too bad," I said. "It must be easy to get colds when you work every day with the public."
"Yes," she said. "And I can't afford to be sick."
Then we continued chatting, and soon I left the store. But I kept thinking about what she'd said.
Can't afford to be sick. I say those words all the time. What I mean when I say them is that I don't think I have time to be sick. I have a lot going on at that moment, and so if I get sick it is an inconvenience. It means I won't get through my to-do list. But at least if I am sick, I can take a day or two off fairly easily.
This woman was taking it in stride - she was not making a big deal of it. But she meant she literally couldn't afford to get sick. If she misses work, she loses pay, and she probably can't make rent or pay for something else she needs to get by. And so here she was at work anyways, because she couldn't afford not to be. It was one more reminder of the difficult choices that people in poverty make every day.
According to a Statistics Canada study about non-wage benefits in the workforce, 55% of non-unionized employees and 16% of unionized employees are not covered by extended health insurance in their main jobs, and are therefore not eligible to receive sick days. I'm guessing that many of these jobs also come with low wages.
That's millions of Canadians who can't afford to be sick, in other words.
- Julia Morgan
(with thanks to Andrew Jackson of the Canadian Labour Congress for his research assistance.)