Government proposes changes to public servants’ sick leave

Short-term disability provisions a tough pill to swallow: Union

Robyn Benson is sick and tired of the debate surrounding sick leave for public servants.

Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) union, said the proposed changes to sick leave policy are hazardous to workers’ health.

Speaking at a recent provincial Progressive Conservative conference in Nova Scotia, Treasury Board minister Tony Clement proposed changes to the federal government’s current sick leave management system that would eliminate accumulated sick leave and replace it with a short-term disability (STD) plan for its employees.

"What he is still failing to understand is that (sick leave) is contained within our collective agreement," Benson said of Clement. "He needs to come to the negotiating table. I’m quite prepared to negotiate an improvement to our provisions, but we have no intention of giving up our sick leave."

Clement’s proposal would provide employees with five to seven sick days a year, a short-term disability leave of a week to six months and long-term leave for more than six months.

The short-term leave would reportedly do more for young or new public employees who don’t have enough sick days accumulated to deal with extended illness, according to Ottawa.

"Without the banked days, many employees are at financial risk in the event that they become ill or injured for a prolonged period," Treasury Board media relations representative Kelly James said in a statement to Canadian Labour Reporter. "In 2011-2012 over 6,500 federal employees went without pay during an illness."

James said 25 per cent of employees have less than 10 days of banked sick leave and 65 per cent do not have enough sick days accumulated to cover the 13-week period before they become eligible for long-term disability (LTD) benefits.

The proposed changes would do more to address health issues like mental illness than the current system of accumulated sick days does, Clement said. The Treasury Board reports mental illness accounts for roughly one-half of all sick leave.

Benson, however, believes the proposed changes will actually harm public service employees more than help them.

"This is not going to help mental health at all," Benson said. "In fact, it’s probably going to increase the problems we already have in the workplace. To now know you don’t have sick leave in the bank, that you won’t get 100 per cent wage replacement… that’s not going to improve your mental health, that’s actually going to cause you more anxiety than the system we have now."

Benson said alternative improvements could be introduced to the current sick leave system to better serve young and new employees. She expressed concern that a short-term disability leave would lead to the contracting out of the management of employees’ sick leave.

James, however, pointed out third parties currently provide public servants long-term disability benefits to the employees’ satisfaction.

"The government is considering options for a similar third-party delivery model for a new short-term disability plan," she said. "Disability benefit service providers have the experience and expertise to provide active case management in conjunction with managers. This would ensure consistent services for all employees."

Gary Johns — a professor in the department of management at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal and an expert in absenteeism — called the contracting out of something as complex as sick leave "worrisome."

"You have to put some of the responsibility where the knowledge is located," Johns said. "People can be absent for a lot of reasons and it requires a local intelligence in order to understand how to manage any given case. Usually, outsourcing implies some degree of removal from where the knowledge is located. Work behavior is usually managed best by managers."

While he questioned the decision to hand over management to a third party, Johns said the government’s move to eliminate accumulated sick days was an obvious one.

"These bankable sick days are designed to keep absence low. They’re designed to discourage people from taking sick days. Clearly, this isn’t working," Johns said, citing the ongoing debate between the government and unions regarding public servants’ sick leave statistics.

While bankable sick days have been a point of contention, Johns is not convinced they have any meaningful impact on day-to-day attendance management. Benson said the government is misleading Canadians about the nature of public servants’ accumulated leave in order to push forward the proposed changes.

"This government says that it’s a liability and it’s billions of dollars," she said of the accumulated leave. "They’re misleading Canadians, quite frankly. Certainly, we bank our sick leave. If we use it, there’s a pay out of it. If we don’t use it, we just lose it."

Eliminating accumulated sick leave and replacing it with a short-term disability plan would only encourage employees to come in to work when they are ill, Benson said.

"If we use it, then it becomes a liability. If we don’t use it, it just sits there on the books. Mr. Clement is skewing the figures to his own advantage," she said. "Other Canadians have sick leave, both in the private sector and in other public sectors like provincial and municipal governments."

James said the proposed move to a short-term disability leave is not an effort to take away from public sector employees, but rather an attempt to provide them with benefits comparable to Canadians across the country.

"The federal government is one of the few large employers in Canada that does not provide support for short-term illnesses," James said. "Approximately 87 per cent of Canadian employers do. A new sick leave and disability management system would offer consistent coverage to all federal public servants, regardless of an employee’s tenure, medical history or age."

The proposed changes will be discussed throughout 2014 as part of negotiations with 17 public sector unions. The ongoing discussions will mean Benson — and the public — are about to get another big dose of the debate surrounding sick leave in the public sector.

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