In my high school the guidance counsellor had a small, windowless office containing a filing cabinet against one wall. Inside it were hanging folders with tabs that said, “Teacher”, “Economist”, “Construction Worker” “Dentist” and their accompanying job descriptions. One day I browsed the folders to decide on a career. I skipped dental hygienist (yuck) and ironworker (physically difficult and dangerous) until my eye landed on “Philosopher”. I wasn’t sure what a philosopher did but I was pretty sure it was indoor work that required a lot of reclining with eyes closed. I found this very appealing.
Well, I didn’t become a philosopher but an opinionator, which, I suppose is a kind of philosopher. However, the career l should have aimed for was “Public Service Employee”. Someone who gets paid NOT to be sick.
If I were a public servant I would be entitled to a big basket of job perks: a defined benefit pension plan adjusted for inflation, generous health and disability benefits, job security, and 3 weeks of sick days every year that I can use, carry forward indefinitely or cash in. Yippee.
A report last year from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business compared sick days taken by public sector employees versus those in the private sector. Public sectors employees claim 63% more sick days and this costs taxpayers $3.5 billion annually. Banked sick days, where an employee is not sick but takes the cash, is an estimated taxpayer liability of $5 billion.
Listen, I’m no plutocrat. I’m a worker. A freelance worker to boot, so there’s no union representative to turn to in order to negotiate my salary or benefits. The latter doesn’t matter anyway because I have none. If I’m sick, I work. If I’m really sick, I don’t work. And I don’t get paid. If my illness—or anything else for that matter— inconveniences my employer then it’s, “Next!”
So, when I say that the two-tier system, where the public sector employee gets a lot and the private sector worker gets bupkis, (a fine Yiddish word that translates as ‘goat turds’), then know that my animus is driven by two forces: envy and umbrage.
Envy, for the obvious reason that I, too, would like to suckle at the public’s teat but instead got waylaid at the high school guidance counsellor’s office and thus fell into the beleaguered profession of writer/editor in the private sector. And, umbrage, because, well, it’s just not fair that a select few get paid for NOT getting the croup or cancer, while the rest of us are up a creek.
The Harper government has put these egregious benefits in the spotlight. And, while I’m no great fan of Harper, he is right to do this. Public sector employees live in a parallel universe and the gap between their wages and perks and what everyone else gets is widening. It would be peachy if everyone were treated similarly, except that’s impossible. Their lavish benefits are an artefact of a bygone era of economic boom times and rapid public and private sector growth. Today’s environment is very different: at best, it’s no-to-low growth scenario for the foreseeable future with indebted governments and diminished tax rolls. This situation doesn’t jibe with soaring mental health benefit claims and record-breaking absenteeism rates in the public sector subsidized in large part by private sector workers. According to the Ottawa Citizen, every public servant costs taxpayers $114,000 annually in salary and benefits.
Fairness would mean that, either everyone gets these benefits, or no one does. Public sector employees can’t possibly be working harder than the rest of us. So it’s only reasonable that they shouldn’t be entitled to benefits that will forever elude the majority of workers.