06/20/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 08/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Public Sector Sick Days Cost $1 Billion A Year


A confidential government report obtained by CBC News reveals federal workers have been booking off sick in record numbers, costing Canadian taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in lost wages alone.

The internal Treasury Board report indicates federal public servants are staying home an average of 18 working days a year, or almost a full month off the job.

That is about 2½ times the average rate of absenteeism in Canadian private industry, and almost twice the level of sick leave and disability claims in the rest of the public sector.

This apparent epidemic of bureaucratic no-shows means that on an average weekday, more federal public servants are off sick than there are employees at Ford Canada and General Motors combined.

Statistics over the past decade show absenteeism is a growing problem, and experts say the Conservative government's current job cuts will only make matters much worse.

Most workers in the federal public service get up to 15 days of fully paid sick leave per year, and on average, they are calling in sick for 12 of them.

In most areas of the government, employees can bank unused sick leave for future needs.

According to one informed estimate, public servants are currently sitting on about $5.2-billion worth of accumulated sick leave, a potential tidal wave of future absenteeism.

Long-term disability adds to costs

Federal employees whose illnesses outlast their regular sick leave benefits may also be entitled to long-term disability coverage.

The confidential report shows the use of long-term disability benefits is also increasing, accounting for the equivalent of another six days a year of lost work per government employee.

The combination of regular sick leave and long-term disability adds up to an average absenteeism of 18 days a year per employee.

The report estimates that on any given day, there are about 6,000 federal workers collecting disability benefits equal to 70 per cent of their regular income. (The report does not include employees of Crown corporations.)

Almost half of them are on leave for stress, depression or other mental health issues.

Gregory Thomas, head of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, calls the situation "outrageous."

"We know the population isn't sick 18 days a year; it doesn't make sense.

"The government's got to start treating this money like it's their own money, and they've got to insist that if people are healthy, they come to work. And if people are sick, you've got to make sure they are sick."

Absenteeism expected to get worse

The 86-page report completed a year ago is part of a government-wide review called the Disability Management Initiative, an attempt by the Harper administration to come to grips with soaring absenteeism in the public service.

The report says so much absenteeism already costs Canadian taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

Experts say the situation is likely to get worse.

The Harper government has announced it is cutting about 19,500 jobs across the federal public service over the next three years — coincidentally, almost exactly the number of federal workers off sick on any given day.

The report warns cuts inherently "place more strain and additional burdens on employees who are present in the workplace, causing yet more disability."

That view is shared by workplace health experts and by union officials.

Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business and one of the country's leading specialists in workplace health and absenteeism, said the record levels of sick leave shouldn't come as a surprise.

"We know in fact downsizing, restructuring, re-engineering, losing jobs — it is incredibly hard on people; it is hard on their psyche, hard on their mental health.

Gary Corbett, head of the Professional Institute of the Public Service, the union representing government scientists, engineers and other professionals, blames the Harper government's approach to downsizing the public service for creating uncertainty among employees.

"It puts a lot of stress on people."

The government's Disability Management Initiative includes representatives from the public service unions, and was supposed to lay the groundwork for a complete overhaul of federal sick leave and disability programs across the bureaucracy.

But no one seems to know what has happened to the whole initiative.

Treasury Board officials refused to provide any information on the initiative — or anything else to do with government absenteeism.

Senior officials at the two largest public service unions say no one in their ranks has even seen the report.

Indeed, a year after the report was completed, there is no evidence it has prompted the government to make any changes at all.

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