Absenteeism Policy Unhealthy
There appears to be a deluge of reports surfacing regarding absenteeism in the workplace and comparing different provincial averages. Comparisons also abound when examining public sector workers with their private sector counterparts. Unionized civil servants are often being cast as villains in the pieces but we all know there are two sides (at least) to every story.
Consider the recent report from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation which revealed that Quebec workers had the highest rate of absenteeism in the country. The average sick days taken by public employees in that province was a healthy 12.2, slightly over once per month. This is in startling contrast to the Alberta worker’s sick days averaged a meagerly 5.6 days per year. It is telling, however, that in Alberta, public sector employees still racked up 9.1 sick days annually; almost twice as many as the private workers they serve.
The reason public sector staff accrued so many sick days is because prior to the 1970’s government workers were invariably paid at least 10% less than private industry employees. The perks of sick days and healthier pensions were a way to level the playing field and attract proficient talent. Now, however, thanks to powerful public service unions, the playing field has tilted significantly toward the public sector. Their wages are now more than 10% higher than people in privately held companies doing a comparable job would receive.
And they still get their big, fat sick day package. Many of these illness leave clauses in union contracts allow sick days, as many as 20 in some jurisdictions, to be carried over from year to year and cashed out upon leaving public service or retirement.
Private sector workers, who have to pay for the banking of sick days tend to be outraged at the practice. In their world, sick days, if they get them at all, are if you’re too ill to perform your job competently. Many labour under the policy, “you don’t show up, you don’t get paid”. What is curious is that, instead of trying to make the same gains in sick day benefits as their public service cousins, they attack them for being lazy. It is a “crabs in the bucket” mentality that seems incomprehensible to public sector workers who have already vowed to take the fight to Tony Clement. The Treasury Board minister has announced he is going to try and trim back sick day clauses in federal union contracts.
Rather than emulating clawed crustaceans, hauling their brethren back into the pail who dare try to escape their tasty fate, there may be other motives at work for private sector folks to find fault with public employee sick day compensation. Private workers know that they are part of a team that has to mesh together to get the necessary tasks done for the company to be profitable and continue to provide them employment. They know that when they don’t show up for their private sector job, there isn’t much redundancy in their system and others must take on the load they have abandoned due to ill health.
In the public service system, there is more redundancy than in private business. There is never a worry the nation will go broke and not be able to continue in a culture of laziness and waste. Not that all civil servants are lazy and wasteful, of course, but the pressures of making a profit just doesn’t exist for them. This may be why one published report revealed that within the Toronto school system; there is one facility that experienced an absenteeism rate of a mind-boggling 25% of the teaching staff every day in May. When teachers don’t show up, it’s not like the work doesn’t get done. “Supply teachers” are used which costs the system extra and leads to poorer teaching.
According to a June 26 Maclean’s report on this subject, Michael Barrett, who is president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, has flatly stated, “People who can’t teach math are teaching math.” The reason for this surge in absenteeism, apparently, was that the school board had taken away the ability of these teachers to bank their sick leave. If it wasn’t used by schools end, it was gone. What a surprise some would see this as a reason to book off work. It was coming to them, after all. You’d be a fool not to take it, if it’s offered.
In fact, being able to bank holidays for years, to be cashed in upon retirement, has been argued as reducing absenteeism. Every day taken off reduces the amount at the end that is needed for retirement. It’s been reported that some public service managers are frustrated that they provide such easily available sick time for those under the weather, but many people still drag themselves into work. They bring their communicable diseases with them so they don’t chip away at their nest egg. It is curious that Mr. Clement, while lamenting how many days of paid sick leave his employees receive means no one is ever in the office, then turns around and then complains how many days they bank for retirement. It is impossible that it be both.
Therein lies the crux of the issue. Just what is sick leave? Is it a set of days guaranteed to employees that are much like holidays, which they can use at a whim; really just mis-named “personal days”? Should they have accumulating value? Or are they simply days the company pays you when you are too ill to come in? In this case, don’t employees who take more sick days than others getting an unfair advantage?
The answers aren’t always straightforward and statistics don’t always tell the whole tale. However, if sick days are shown to be fairest when spelled out for the year and be allowed to accumulate, those benefits should be available to all, not just government workers.
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