Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Appalling rates of public-sector absenteeism must be addressed

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It is appalling that the federal public service annual absenteeism rate is 18.2 days -- two and a half times that of the private sector. It is a wise move for Stephen Harper's government to take action on this apparent misuse of taxpayers' money.

There are legitimate reasons for any worker to take sick days and likely most Canadians agree no one should be forced to work through illness. Going to work sick can prolong the illness and cause it to spread to coworkers. It may, in a misguided way, demonstrate loyalty to one's work, but it doesn't pay in the long run and most employers realize that.

Too often, though, sick days are used for something other than illness. It's a way to get time off without losing pay or using up vacation days, despite the dishonesty involved. It's a practice that seems to have taken hold in the days of a robust economy, and has contributed to a belief among those with a designated number of annual paid days off for illness that these days are an entitlement. It's a "use them or lose them" mentality.

We can see that entitlement scenario playing out in Ontario as a record number of teachers are calling in sick this spring. Under the contract imposed by the provincial government, sick days were reduced from 20 to 11 each year and teachers lost the right to bank unused sick days until retirement. Hence, use them or lose them.

That's an attitude that doesn't fly in most private sector workplaces. Absenteeism is monitored and analyzed for patterns. If an employee habitually calls in sick on Mondays or Fridays, for example, chances are there will be serious questions. Particularly in difficult economic times, private sector employers simply cannot afford to see their money wasted through ongoing misuse of sick days.

Let's be clear: We are not suggesting that all teachers and all federal public servants who call in sick are cheating Canadians out of tax dollars. But in both cases, scrutiny is warranted to ensure the system is not subject to widespread abuse.

Particularly with regard to the federal civil service, it's clear something must change given the alarming rate of absenteeism compared to the private sector. It is simply not credible that the rate of legitimate illness would be so much higher among public sector workers compared to those in the private sector.

On Monday, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the government will negotiate with its public sector unions to replace the banked-sick-days system with a new short-term disability program. That's entirely reasonable; the current system is more than 40 years old and fraught with inefficiency. Given the appalling absenteeism rate, improvements are clearly desperately needed and long overdue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2013 A15

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