Federal government workers and sick leave: the facts

FACT: Unused sick days aren’t a “perk.” Federal government workers can’t cash out unused sick days or use them to retire early.

It is misleading to cost unused sick leave as a $5 billion “liability”. Federal government workers can’t cash out their sick leave or use it to retire early. In fact, workers must leave any unused sick leave behind when they retire. That means that without more data, we can’t know how much is used and how much is left behind.

We negotiated the right for our members to save up sick leave for a reason: it’s like an insurance policy. Like insurance, saved up sick leave can be indispensable. Workers battling a chronic or serious illness have to wait at least 13 weeks (65 working days) – or, if they have more than 65 days in sick leave, use that up until it’s gone – before their disability insurance kicks in. If they have no saved up sick leave, they are forced to rely on Employment Insurance through that period – that means earning a maximum of $501 a week.

Those returning to work must start all over again – if they get sick within a year they automatically go back on disability insurance. But if they get sick more than a year after returning to work, they will have, once again, started with just 15 days of sick leave to draw on.

FACT: Most federal government workers are taking between 0 and 8 days in sick leave per year, not 18.

Treasury Board says that federal government workers in the core public administration use an average of 18 sick leave days a year: 11.11 in paid and 6.85 in unpaid sick leave. But these numbers are just random averages and don’t accurately reflect what most federal government workers actually use.

The government doesn’t say, for example, that its average of 11.11 paid sick days is skewed by a small number of workers – like those in high-risk and high-stress workplaces such as correctional services – who need more time off because of the nature of their work. That number also includes workers with extended illnesses who are using up sick leave credits before qualifying for long term disability. The government also doesn’t say that the average of 6.85 days in unpaid sick leave includes those who are on long term disability and those who are on Employment Insurance while waiting for their long term disability to kick in. Treasury Board’s data shows that most “sick leave without pay” is used by employees who are off work for most of the year. 95% of federal workers don’t use any sick leave without pay.

The concept of “daily averages” is misleading. Without seeing the data, or knowing what the median use of paid and unpaid sick leave is, we can only estimate what the true picture is. And it seems far more likely that the majority of federal government workers are taking between 0 and 8 days of paid sick leave per year – not 18.

PSAC would like to see data on how many workers, worried about losing their jobs because of the cuts, are going to work sick. Going to work despite illness or injury or working extra unnecessary and unpaid hours often results in workers getting much sicker in the long run, unhealthy work/life balance and lower productivity.

FACT: The vast majority of federal government workers aren’t replaced when they’re sick.

With very few exceptions – such as where minimum staffing requirements are in place for workers like fire fighters on military bases, correctional service workers, border service agents and some call centre workers – the vast majority of federal government workers don’t get replaced if they are off work for a few days. Most workers who are off sick have the work they missed waiting for them to catch up on when they return. Treasury Board puts the number of workers replaced when sick at about 20 per cent of the workforce – that number seems high, and we’d like access to the supporting data.

Treasury Board says sick leave is costing the government $1 billion a year, but that doesn’t add up given the low replacement rate. When calculating that cost, Treasury Board costs every single day of absence as a lost day of work. Half of the $1 billion “cost” – or $500 million – is attributed to the use of sick leave days in the federal public service. In other words, if the “average” usage is 11.11 days of paid sick leave, and we multiply that times their daily salaries and the total number of workers, we get to $500 million. But that’s not a “new” cost on top of the salary being spent. It’s a part of what is spent on salaries. At best, it’s a measure of “lost productivity” representing the value of work that didn’t get done. But that just doesn’t reflect the way in which the modern federal government works. Nor does such a costing reflect the benefit of people not coming to work sick and spreading illness.

We need valid data on true replacement costs in order to accurately cost the additional costs that come from sick leave and disability.

FACT: Comparing public sector sick leave to private sector sick leave is like comparing apples and oranges.

Comparing sick leave in the federal government to sick leave in the private sector is like comparing apples and oranges. For starters, many private sector workers who are off sick aren’t being paid, and therefore aren’t being counted as “off sick”. Federal government workers employed through temporary placement agencies, for example, have no sick leave. If they’re sick, they just don’t get paid.

Public sector workers have better plans for supporting employees with long term illnesses and disability, and better provisions for looking after sick members of the employee’s family members. Many private sector workers without long term disability benefits are forced to stop working altogether when faced with a serious illness. That means that they aren’t counted as off sick because they are unemployed or out of the workforce altogether.

FACT: Our collective agreements give management all the tools they need to manage sick leave responsibly.

Our collective agreements give management all the tools they need to manage sick leave responsibly. All leave is authorized by supervisors and management. If a manager suspects or is concerned that an employee is abusing sick leave they can ask for medical certificates. If a manager is concerned about an entire section’s sick leave, they can seek resolution through the joint union-management committee. If a manager thinks an employee has an absenteeism problem, they can interview the employee, address the issue through counselling and discussion,and engage in discipline if abuse is found to exist.

FACT: The government needs to do more to promote healthy workplaces, prevent illness and help people who are sick get back to work.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement says it is “absolute nonsense” that the cuts are making federal government workers sick. But disability claims in the federal government have increased 37 per cent since 2006, and Health Canada’s Employee Assistance Program, which puts federal government workers in touch with mental health professionals, saw a huge spike in calls in 2012 as cuts from that year’s budget were being implemented. By late summer more than 150 callers had been identified as at risk for suicide. Mental health related disability claims accounted for more than 48 per cent of all claims filed in 2011 – the numbers for 2012 aren’t yet known. Neither is there data available about whether paid sick leave use or worker compensation claims due to workplace injuries have increased over the same period.

With thousands more cuts to be implemented over the next few years, this government should be ensuring that federal government workplaces are healthy and respectful. In addition, the government needs to ensure workers who are sick are getting the help they need, and, when they are ready, the support they need to get back to work.



June 1, 2015