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In a major victory for health care workers, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has been ordered to stop engaging in practices that punish workers for being sick or injured.

In response to a grievance launched last year by the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) and other health unions, arbitrator Vince Ready has ruled that the health authority must end the practice of denying overtime, reducing hours or threatening to fire workers for illness or injury.

Under the health authority’s so-called Attendance Wellness Program, OT bans and reduced hours are put in place automatically for workers who experience higher than average sick time usage.

Ready ordered that the practice be stopped effective January 18 and that all OT bans should be lifted and that any worker that has had their hours reduced under the program should have them reinstated.

HEU had said that the coercive measures not only violated workers’ rights, but in fact undermined employers’ efforts to fight the spread of influenza in health care settings.

That’s because many workers felt pressured to report to work when they were ill in order to avoid the loss of income or employment.

In fact, a poll released last fall by HEU indicated that one out of three HEU members reported to work while experiencing flu or cold symptoms because of pressure from their employer not to access sick leave.

HEU secretary-business manager Bonnie Pearson hopes that the ruling will result in health employers adopting a more enlightened approach to reducing illness and injury in health care workplaces.

Hopefully the health authority will use this opportunity to work with health unions to develop programs that emphasize prevention and consultation rather than punishment and coercion,” says Pearson.

Vancouver Coastal Health Authority’s Attendance Wellness Program was implemented in 2008.

HEU, along with the Health Sciences Association, B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, Canadian Union of Public Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers, filed a policy grievance against the implementation of the program and hearings into the matter were held in 2011 and 2012.

Ready was not prepared to order retroactive compensation for employees who have been improperly punished under the AWP. However, he did order that current OT bans and hours reductions be immediately lifted.

The Hospital Employees’ Union is the B.C. health care services division of CUPE.