A spin class became a superspreader event. Why are fitness instructors excluded from workers’ compensation if they fall ill on the job?
Back injuries, knee pain, shoulder problems — and now, COVID-19.
They are daily risks faced by fitness instructors and personal trainers across the province. But unlike millions of employees in other sectors, gym staff are not entitled to workers’ compensation when they get sick or hurt on the job.
It’s a long-standing exclusion to the workers’ compensation system that critics say needs urgent change, especially in light of a Hamilton spin studio outbreak that may have exposed upwards of 2,500 people to COVID. Two staff members at the studio contracted the virus.
“Our bodies are on the line,” said Toronto-based group fitness instructor Vidya Sri. “The laws are completely out of date.”
Under current provincial legislation, gyms and fitness studios are exempt from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage. That means they do not need to pay insurance premiums to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board — and their employees cannot access benefits following a workplace accident or illness.
Gyms can voluntarily opt into the workers’ compensation system. There are 1,653 fitness establishments in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada; of those, 24 have elected to provide compensation coverage to workers, data from the WSIB shows.
Coverage means workers are eligible for loss-of-earning or health-care benefits following a work-related illness or injury.
A 2019 report on working conditions in the Ontario fitness sector by Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University, found nearly a third all instructors and trainers had sustained an injury on the job. Half reported not having paid sick days.
“The lack of WSIB coverage and paid sick days make gym and fitness club workers less willing to disclose illness or injuries out of fear of reprisal or loss of income,” Savage said.
“The pandemic only makes this bad situation worse by increasing the likelihood that clients and other workers will contract COVID-19 if gym and fitness club workers decide to come in to work sick in order to avoid loss of pay.”
As part of his research, Savage told the Star he made inquiries with the Ministry of Labour about the history of the gym exclusion but “no one could or was willing to explain” why it existed.
Around 76 per cent of Ontario workplaces are required to pay into workers’ compensation. Legislative change is needed to amend the list of excluded employers. When asked if the government is considering reform, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour said workers’ health and safety was its “top priority.”
“With only a handful of exceptions, those workplaces that aren’t subject to mandatory coverage can choose to purchase coverage from the WSIB,” the statement said.
Planet Fitness outlets account for 10 of the gyms that voluntarily signed up for coverage, according to the WSIB’s data. Other than F45 Guelph, part of a relatively new but popular fitness chain, none of the gyms that opted into the workers’ compensation system are major players. (Other establishments included the “Orillia Agricultural Society” and “Retro Rollers.”)
In response to questions from the Star, Hamilton SPINCO founder Michelle August said the company “launched one of the most comprehensive, robust and disciplined strategies to fight COVID-19,” and is “deeply committed to its team” but did not detail support available to infected employees.
“We know that there may be more questions, but at this time SPINCO will not provide further comment on this matter and instead, we will turn our undivided attention to working as expediently as possible with our public health agency,” August’s statement said.
GoodLife Fitness president and chief operations officer Jane Riddell said the company was not required by law to pay into WSIB, but has “developed a robust health and safety division and offers a benefits program that provides medical coverage.”
“GoodLife is firmly committed to the health, safety and well-being of all our associates,” Riddell said.
Michael Labovsky, a personal trainer at GoodLife, said while his employer provides a long-term disability program, staff don’t have short-term disability benefits — making unpaid leave the only option following most injuries or illnesses.
Unionized personal trainers at the gym have up to five paid sick days depending on tenure, but non-union group instructors have none. Many choose not to split the copay on GoodLife’s benefits program because they cannot afford it, Labovsky added.
“If you are well enough to be ambulatory, you are at work training clients,” said Labovsky, who is also president of the Toronto local of Workers United representing GoodLife personal trainers.
In the event of contracting COVID-19 on the job, most trainers would have to rely on federal income supports, said Labovsky. But workers’ compensation benefits are funded through employers’ insurance premiums — and don’t impact the public purse. (By linking premium rates and accident rates, the system is also meant to incentivize employers to keep workers safe.)
Even if the exemption isn’t fixed by lawmakers, Labovsky says GoodLife should voluntarily opt into the workers’ compensation system.
“It is a massive company and they employ so many people,” he said.
Sri, who has worked at numerous gyms for the past decade, said she has never had an employer who provided workers’ compensation coverage. And she has experienced the consequences first hand: in 2016, she developed nodules on her vocal chords due to the strain of in-class instruction. In addition to taking two months of unpaid leave for surgery, she says she paid at least $1,500 out of pocket for rehabilitation like vocal coaching, speech pathology and medication.
Gyms in Toronto recently closed back down as part of stricter lockdown measures mandated by the province — which is also reviewing COVID-19 protocols for the fitness sector after the SPINCO outbreak.
Sri says returning to work is particularly worrying for group fitness instructors. Most instructors hold multiple jobs and travel between several studios to earn a living, a higher risk activity amid the pandemic.
“The prospect of getting sick is very scary,” she said.
But for Sri, juggling several roles is a necessity: she estimates that relying on one group instructor job would earn her just $500 a month.
Precarity is an additional risk factor during the pandemic, said one GoodLife trainer who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
“Trainers will come to work with the flu,” the worker said. “That’s what this system forces us to do, because it’s either do that or don’t get paid … from a public health perspective, that’s not great.”
Sri said she feels relatively confident in the COVID precautions taken by gyms — but less so in the safety net afforded workers during the pandemic and beyond.
“WSIB is crucial for the work that we do,” she said. “When you think about where WSIB (is) mandatory for employers, you think construction, the textile industry. But we’re also putting our bodies on the line every single day.”
“We treat health and wellness as the best thing for our clients,” she added. “But employees don’t get the same benefit.”