EXCLUSIVE: Teacher sick days on the bargaining table

By Cristina Howorun

CityNews has learned that the Ford government is “seriously examining” the allocation of sick days as it heads into bargaining with teacher unions.

Last year, Canada’s largest school board – the Toronto District School Board – spent $96.5-million replacing teachers due to illness, religious or personal reasons. That’s nearly $30-million more than the projected budgetary gap the board is currently grappling with.

When CityNews first broke the story about the bank-busting cost of replacing teachers last year, Education Minister Lisa Thompson said it was something they were monitoring and that the ministry was coming up with “strategies to address it.”

One of those strategies appears to be at the bargaining table.

Teachers are currently allotted 11 paid sick days a year. However, there’s been a marked increase in the use of sick days since 2012. That’s when the previous Liberal government slashed teachers’ allotment from 20 to 11 and ended the practice of allowing them to carry over unused days to following years.

A 2017 report by the auditor-general revealed more than 50 school boards found that usage of sick days increased by about 30 per cent — from nine days in the 2011-2012 school year, to 11.6 days in 2015-2016.

Last year, the Toronto District Catholic School Board (TDCSB) spent $33.6-million covering teacher absences, an increase of nearly $7-million over the previous year. Meanwhile, TDCSB is currently determining how it will make up a projected $31.5-million funding gap and examining lay-offs and changes to programs as potential solutions.

The Peel District School Board – which is waiting on final budget details before making any predictions about potential budget shortfalls – spent $25-million covering sick teachers last year.

Teachers’ contracts expire at the end of August although negotiations with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) began earlier this week. When asked if plans to curb teachers’ sick days was on the table, Thompson was vague.

“I would hope that just like anyone in the workforce, teachers respect their sick days,” said Thompson. “Sick days are for being sick, and in terms of our path forward, everything needs to be on the table. Because we’ve started bargaining and meeting this past week I think that’s all I can say about that at this time.”

“As bargaining has officially started we need to respect the integrity of this process. We treat discussions with our labour partners as confidential,” Kayla Iafelice, a spokesperson for the Education Minister reiterated in a statement.

But sources close to the file acknowledge it is one of the big issues the government – and school boards – hope to address in negotiations.

OSSTF President Harvey Bischof says the government isn’t starting out on a good foot.

“We had our first meeting on Tuesday. Despite their professed desire to move quickly (with negotiations) they move slow,” he says, noting the ministry met with the union 15 days after they filed their intentions to negotiate.

“They did the bare minimum to meet the requirements of the (School Boards Collective Bargaining ) Act,” Bischof explains, stating the first meeting has to happen within 15 days of notice being filed.

Bischof tells CityNews that no issues have been put on the bargaining table as of yet, adding he’s “shocked” anyone involved in the bargaining process would be discussing those issues.

“My understanding is the government is already in the process of engaging in conversations but all of these issues need to be dealt with at the bargaining table,” NDP leader Andrea Horwath said when asked if she thought teacher sick day allotments should be re-examined.

OSSTF is the only teacher union currently involved in negotiations although all collective agreements are set to expire at the end of August.

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