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 “The laws are completely out of date.”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,