Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civil service benefits need balanced reform

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The federal government has signalled it is moving to change sick leave benefits of its civil servants. In a brief reference in the budget speech, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty acknowledged sick leave and disability benefits must be aligned better with that available in the private sector. Reform, which stems abuse and helps ailing workers heal faster, will save taxpayers money, but benefit government workers, too.

Federal civil servants can bank their unused sick days, which means that for lengthy periods off work they can collect full salary. That costs the federal government billions each year-- $3.5 billion by one estimate. But it also invites abuse, with fraudulent claiming of weeks of sick days at opportune times. On average, federal civil servants use 12.5 sick days a year -- or 18 days when paid and unpaid leave is tallied -- about double the claims of most Canadians. On any day, some 19,000 employees are off sick from their federal jobs.

This is the picture that Canadians in the private sector most obviously see when complaining about the rich entitlements they will never get from their employers.

But the unions have recognized, as well, that the antiquated sick leave benefits for federal workers do not serve anyone's real interest. The federal disability leave only kicks in, to cover 70 per cent of wages, after 13 weeks of absence. That means those who are legitimately off work injured, sick or suffering from mental health issues would face a gap in income that is typically filled now with accumulated sick days. Hence the incentive to bank days that becomes a huge liability to taxpayers.

Moving to a short-term disability plan, to fill that gap, will require negotiation with public-service unions as the cost would be borne by workers and the government. But it can be made attractive with programs that assist rehabilitation. Stress is a common cause of sick leave and mental health claims make up about half the problem. Adequate resources, such as individualized counselling, can help get workers back into the job or support them to re-train.

A workplace that tallies half of those claims due to stress is sick itself -- something government and unions must address. But unlimited coverage that pays workers to stay home with the flu for a few days is ill-suited to efficient management or the suite of illness and injury plaguing the labour force. New rules to tailor sick claims and rehabilitation to those truly ill will serve workers, the workplace and taxpayers.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2013 A10

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