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TORONTO (Reuters) - A perk that lets municipal workers bank up sick days and cash them in when they retire is at the center of a pay dispute in the city of Toronto.
It is also an issue that sets the workers apart from unionized industrial workers in the Toronto region that have accepted big benefit cuts recently as they try to keep their jobs.
Without a last-minute deal, city workers, who currently get 18 sick days a year, will strike Monday, halting garbage pickup and closing day-care centers, as well as other city services.
But the city says it cannot afford the sick pay benefits at a time when Canada is in deep recession and many private-sector workers face pay cuts or reduced benefits.
Unionized workers at the Canadian operations of General Motors Corp and Chrysler agreed to steep concessions earlier this year in a deal that helped secure government aid for the auto sector.
And this week the union representing Air Canada's customer service and sales agents ratified a 21-month contact with the cash-strapped carrier, a deal it said was not ideal but helps the company avoid bankruptcy.
If a Toronto agreement is not reached by midnight on Sunday, about 24,000 workers in Canada's largest city will go on strike. The negotiations have dragged on for more than five months.
Some 18,000 of the workers are part of Canadian Union of Public Employees local 79, and about 6,000 are from the Toronto Civic Employees Union local 416.
CUPE says key sticking points include job security and the workers' right to bank unused sick days and cash them out at retirement, a perk considered rare in both the public and private sectors.
The Toronto Star newspaper, traditionally pro union, described the sick pay benefit as "outdated and costly".
"Simply put, maintaining an outdated sick bank system is not fair to Toronto's increasingly hard-pressed residents, who must pay for it," the Star wrote in an editorial this week.
Reporting by Frank Pingue; editing by Janet Guttsman and Peter Galloway