11/16/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/16/2015 05:59 EST

Public Service, Government Battle Rages Over Sick Leave

“We don’t have to be disagreeable to disagree,” Treasury Board president Tony Clement said on the eve of the third round of bargaining talks with unions representing federal civil servants.

Clement has consistently maintained that there is “excessive absenteeism” in the civil service.

“He’s out there saying we abuse sick leave, that we’re slackers,” counters Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). “This is the first president of the Treasury Board who treats his employees with such disdain and disrespect.”

Ian Lee at Carleton’s Sprott School of Business calls it a dysfunctional relationship, “two scorpions in a bottle going at each other trying to claw out the other person's face.”

Get past the name calling and there are indeed substantive issues dividing the two sides as they prepare to head back to the bargaining table Monday.

Statistics Canada has reported a loss of 37,000 jobs in the public service in recent years – a reduction, according to a recent paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, of 8 per cent of civil service positions. Now the focus is on cutting back benefits, specifically sick leave.

Clement wants to reduce civil service paid sick days from 15 to five a year, and eliminate the sick leave bank. His proposed changes would require civil servants to take up to seven days of unpaid leave after they have used up their five paid days, and then apply to their insurance company for sickness benefits if more time away from work is needed.

The fear of labour unions is that rather than losing pay for a week, employees will go to work sick, risk getting sicker themselves, and potentially spread illness to others. That's something that flies in the face of public health campaigns and the push for a sustainable work-life balance.

PSAC, the largest of the 17 unions that represent federal workers, has rejected the proposal out of hand.

“We have said no to concessions. That is a huge concession," Benson says.

The numbers game

More than 120 countries in the world mandate paid sick leave by law, and 98 guarantee more than a month’s paid sick leave a year.

In Canada, the only jurisdiction that guarantees paid sick leave – one day a year – is Prince Edward Island. In this country, paid sick leave is granted by the grace and favour of employers and the bargaining strength of unions.

Benson's position is that in the current round of bargaining, the federal government - traditionally in the vanguard of progressive employment practices - is not showing much grace and favour towards its employees on this issue.

Clement, in response, has said repeatedly that civil servants take 18 days of sick leave a year. “Excessive absenteeism”, he maintains, “reduces morale, productivity and affects the ability to do the job on behalf of the taxpayer.”

The Parliamentary Budget Officer suggested in his latest report that the Minister played fast and loose with the numbers. Civil servants, according to the PBO, take closer to 12 paid sick days a year. Clement included unpaid sick leave and workplace injuries in his calculations.

The PBO report also points out that the federal civil service employs older workers, more women and has a unionized work force. Older workers tend to take more sick days due to health conditions that arise as people age, and so do women – often to stay home with sick children.

Clement and the Treasury Board are putting the issue at the feet of civil service managers. He argues that handing over the monitoring of anything beyond occasional sick leave to an insurance company would guarantee more active management of an employee who is off due to illness.

This is what happens “in 90 per cent of the private sector work force,” Clement told CBC News.

“Show me the beef, Tony,” counters Linda Duxbury, who teaches workforce management at the Sprott School of business. “Show me where you get your data for that whacking huge generalization.”

Some of the biggest and most profitable companies in the country actually give more flexibility around absenteeism than five days, Duxbury says.

“Some oil companies, it's like -  'Hey your dog died. Good enough, take a day. We understand,'" she says. "And quite frankly, the data’s clear that organizations that demonstrate trust in employees get trust back from employees.”

Lee expects that paid sick leave and benefits will turn into a major plank in next year’s federal election, aimed at appealing to the Conservative base as the law and order agenda has in previous elections.

“The underlying text, and I’ve heard Tony Clement say this, is this isn’t fair - that these people are getting befits that the rest of us don’t get.”     

The government and the unions go back to the bargaining table on Monday Nov. 17. Bargaining sessions are scheduled into the new year.

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