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Hooky day in Canada

Sick days can be suspicious when the weather is nice and the weekend is near

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The weather is turning towards a (hopefully) warmer trend, the trees and flowers are blossoming, and the school year is nearing its end. It’s a time when the thoughts of many employees are turning towards barbecues, patios, and vacations.

Though many Canadians enjoy their winter getaways to warmer locales, large numbers also look forward to taking time off work when it’s warmer closer to home. However, sometimes the vacation time they get isn’t enough and some might look for other ways to enjoy the nice weather.

Many employers provide a certain amount of sick days for which the employer still pays the employee while the employee theoretically stays home to get better. If an employee uses up these sick days, they often have to use vacation time or take unpaid days if they continue to be sick. Attendance management programs can be set up to monitor these absences and employees could be required to provide medical documentation to prove illness for any sick days beyond their normal allotment.

Suspicions can be raised when employees take sick days on Fridays or Mondays when the weather is nice, as one could think an employee doing so is likely taking a day off to enjoy the day rather than recover from illness. But if an employee is within her allotment of sick days, should she have the right to take it?

Sometimes an employee may not be physically ill, but is feeling stressed due to work or personal issues. In such circumstances, a “mental health” day might be just as legitimate a reason to take a sick day as having a bad cold. Ultimately, it could benefit the employer if the employee can recharge her batteries and come back to work more productive. But if a worker needs time off to relax and recharge her batteries, isn’t that what vacation leave is for?

Sick days can affect an employer’s business. Other workers have to make up for the absence, the employer has to scramble to find a replacement, or productivity simply suffers with a short-handed staff. So anytime a worker takes a sick day when she isn’t really sick, there can be negative consequences for the employer.

If it’s suspected a worker has taken a sick day rather than use a vacation day, it might not be worth it for the employer to pursue the matter if it’s an isolated incident. But if there’s a pattern where a worker might be doing it multiple times, action probably needs to be taken. But what type of action?

Usually, abusing sick leave isn’t just cause for dismissal, unless it’s a persistent pattern of behaviour over a period of time. Like many instances of employee misconduct, employers are required to warn employees and give them opportunities to improve before dismissal is considered. Many attendance management programs are built around this concept: a progressive series of steps or levels which begin with a warning and move up to more serious levels of discipline, ultimately ending in dismissal if satisfactory improvement isn’t made.

Abuse of sick days can be difficult to prove and there’s a debate over whether doctor’s notes are worth requiring. Sometimes all an employer can do is warn an employee suspected of such misconduct and monitor things.

What do you think is the best way to handle an employee suspected of abusing sick leave?

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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