Time to heal the federal government’s broken sick leave system: Cross in the Post

Philip Cross

Philip CrossFederal public servants take sick leave more frequently than their private-sector counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting ill more often.

Instead, writes Philip Cross, the current approach is incentivizing the liberal use of sick days as a bonus form of paid leave.

By Philip Cross, Nov. 27, 2015

Sick leave benefits for federal public employees became an issue in the 2015 federal election campaign, with the Liberal Party stating its opposition to legislation by the previous government that imposed a new sick-leave regime on public servants. The previous government had put reform of sick leave benefits at the centre of the current round of negotiations with all of its unions.

Why are sick days such a big issue? A useful contribution to this debate would be to assess how federal public servants use sick days, compared to the private sector, and in the context of other leave benefits.

The results are striking. Federal government employees took an average of 10.5 sick days per year, while private sector employees average 6.4 days. When you look at the public sector as a whole, including education and health care workers, the average is close to the federal average, with 10.6 sick days taken annually.

The gap between all public servants and private workers has grown dramatically over time. Since data were first collected in 1987, the average sick days used by a public sector worker grew from 7.2 days a year to 10.6 days, with all of the increase occurring after 1995. Conversely, sick leave use in the private sector was virtually the same in 2014 (6.4 days on average) as it was in 1987 (6.1 days).

Looking more closely, people who work indoors in the private sector, the environment most comparable to the public sector, use less than half the sick leave of the public sector.

Both the level and trend of sick leave use in the federal government and throughout the public sector is troubling. The research suggests that the most important determinant of sick leave use is whether you are in the public or private sector, not your exposure to possible injury or illness in the workplace.

Examples within occupational groups bear this out. The fact that senior managers invariably take less than four sick days off per year, while clerks in business and finance take 9.0 sick leave days, suggests that motivation of the individual to work plays a large role.

High pay rates in the public sector have often been justified by employees having high levels of education and training and a large number of professionals and managers. However, in terms of their use of sick leave, public sector employees resemble more clerks and factory workers than professionals and managers.

Federal public servants receive a wide range of leave benefits on top of sick leave, including vacation, statutory holidays, personal and family leave. Combined leave benefits for an employee with 30-years’ service amount to 65 days of paid leave, including 15 sick days, out of a possible 260 working days, a staggering 26 per cent.

There is considerable variation in sick leave use by industry, by occupation, and even within different federal ministries. This suggests a primordial role for motivation and cultural attitudes in taking sick days, rather than biology and medicine. Teachers, for example take the least sick leave in the public sector, partly because they can cash out some sick leave when retiring. Federal employees have the most generous overall compensation in Canada. Overhauling sick leave would be a small step in re-aligning federal pay and benefits with those of the private sector workers who ultimately pay those benefits.

Federal employees have the most generous compensation in Canada. They have the third highest pay scale of any industry, with almost no chance of losing their job. Their pension benefits are unparalleled. Benefits for both sick leave and other forms of time off are the most generous of any large employer in Canada.

Seen in this light, an overhaul of federal sick leave benefits could serve as the basis for reforms to re-align federal pay and benefits with those of private sector workers who ultimately pay for these benefits. This could also be fairer for federal employees, many of whom do not have the seniority to be ill or injured for a long period without a significant loss of income before qualifying for disability.

Philip Cross wrote “A Sickness in the System” for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and formerly worked at Statistics Canada