THE BLOG

Sick Day Abuse Makes Taxpayers Nauseous

09/05/2013 07:15 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST
When was the last time you called in sick? Was it just a case of the sniffles? Were you flat on your back? Or did you go golfing and not want to use a vacation day?

Did you feel guilty about leaving your co-workers to cover for you? Did you take as few days as possible, knowing someone else had to pick up the slack in your absence?

Chances are if you work in the private sector, your answers are very different from those of some government employees.

Numbers recently obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation through Freedom of Information and Statistics Canada data requests show the average private sector worker in B.C. took 7.4 sick days last year. The average government employee took two-thirds more: 12 sick days.

Are our government employees really that much more sickly than their counterparts in the private sector? Both groups have a mix of white collar and blue collar jobs. Both groups have dangerous occupations, along with safe ones. Yet, government employees seem to be much more delicate, needing 4.6 more sick days every year.

Federal government employees are the worst of the bunch - taking an average of 17.9 sick days last year. That's more than three full work weeks of sick time! More federal employees book off sick every day than actually show up for work at General Motors and Chrysler across the country - combined.

Government sick days add up to a lot of taxpayer money. The B.C. government, to its credit, has a slightly lower sick day average among its 25,345 core employees - 9.1 sick days last year. That is still more than the private sector average, but roughly half of their federal counterparts. The government estimates that those sick leave days cost taxpayers $29.2 million last year.

Multiply that figure across all 410,895 government employees in B.C. -- including those working for municipalities, regional districts, universities, colleges, transit authorities, health authorities, federal offices and other agencies -- and taxpayers could be paying out as much as half a billion dollars in sick leave every year. And that's not including long-term disability.

No one is suggesting that sick leave be eliminated. Obviously, we all get sick from time to time and, when bad enough, should be able to stay home and recover. But a culture has clearly grown within many government agencies where sick leave is another benefit to be exploited -- how else do you explain the discrepancy in numbers between the private sector and government employees?

Even the big unions know this, and are using the promise of reduced sick days to negotiate raises with the B.C. government, to comply with the Premier's cooperative gains mandate. The BCGEU, for example, extracted an increase of four per cent over two years for 26,000 of its members based, in part, on reducing sick days. Of course, there is no plan to claw back those raises if sick time is not reduced.

Government agencies need to be more aggressive in following up with employees who call in sick.

During B.C.'s 2011 budget debate, then-Finance Minister Kevin Falcon showed that simple accountability might be the best way to reduce government employee sick time.

"Absenteeism can be very expensive, especially in the health care system. One of the health authorities, by just undertaking a very simple change -- when someone called in sick for work, they received a phone call from the employer as a result of the call-in -- saw a dramatic reduction in absenteeism," said Falcon.

Imagine: something as simple as being held accountable through a phone call caused fewer government employees to call in sick.

It seems many government employees have no idea what it's like in the real world, where sick days are taken only when you're actually sick. With the sick day gap between government and the rest of us now at 62 per cent, and perhaps costing half a billion dollars annually, it should be taxpayers who feel nauseous enough to need time off.