As they get ready to bargain with federal public sector unions, which together represent around 200,000 workers, the Harper Conservatives have been spreading a lot of misinformation about the sick leave system in the public service in order to set the context for the introduction of a private, for profit insurance scheme that will only benefit big insurance corporations.
1. Tony Clement can’t be trusted on how much sick leave public service workers use.
Treasury Board president Tony Clement has repeatedly made the dubious claim that public service workers take an average of 18.2 days of sick leave per year even though they only get 15 sick days each year. The independent Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), however, used Treasury Board’s own numbers to estimate that the average number of paid sick days taken by public sector workers is closer to 11.5. And there’s more: the PBO says that even this lower figure comes with many caveats, so the actual number is likely even lower.
Clement gives the impression that there’s some kind of free for all in the public service, with workers taking sick days indiscriminately. But this is simply wrong: every hour of sick leave taken by a public service worker must be approved by management.
2. It’s not true that public service workers take way more sick leave than private sector workers.
The Harper government likes to claim that public service workers abuse sick leave but, in September 2013, Statistics Canada issued a study that compared absenteeism in the public and private sectors and found that when adjusted for unionization, age and gender, the gap in the number of sick days used amounts to around a day per year.
3. Sick leave helps ensure productivity and helps avoid spreading diseases like mono, flu, avian flu, SARS, H1N1, and whatever comes after H1N1.
Paid sick leave provisions enhance overall productivity by ensuring that workers who are sick with colds and flus don’t come in to work and spread it to other workers. To the Conservatives out there, it’s good for the economy!
4. Sick leave is NOT cashable.
Unused sick leave accumulates each year but, contrary to media and government claims, is in no way cashable upon retirement or departure from the public service. Sick leave that is not used by the time a public service worker quits or retires is lost, not cashed out.
5. How can sick leave cost the government $5 billion if employees can’t cash it out?
Tony Clement claims that accumulated sick leave days represent over $5 billion in liability to the government. This is utter nonsense: most public service workers have many unused sick days when they quit or retire, and this does not cost the government anything. Again, sick leave is not cashable.
UPDATE: In July 2014, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) concluded that there is virtually no incremental cost to government (and taxpayers) stemming from the federal public service sick leave system.
6. The current system should be improved for young workers, not destroyed.
Young public service workers tend not to fall sick very often and so can accumulate their sick days for use when they are older and more likely to fall ill. Sometimes, however, young people do become seriously ill or suffer a major trauma like a concussion from a sport. In such cases, they may have to stay off work for months but would possibly not have enough sick days accumulated to cover the 13 week period before long term disability insurance kicks in.
Both the unions and the government agree that this is a problem, but the solution is not to get rid of the current sick leave system and replace it with a private short term disability plan, as Tony Clement has suggested. In fact, making young workers, who as a whole don’t take much sick leave, pay premiums to an insurance company in order to cover the more frequent sick leave of older workers, also seems problematic.
There are other solutions, though—for example, ‘sick day loans’. If the banks can lend you money to buy a house, surely your employer can lend you sick days with the expectation that you’ll be back at work. In fact, at the discretion of managers, this is already currently possible in the public service.
7. Sick leave is a NEGOTIATED benefit.
The current sick leave system didn’t just happen—it was negotiated by members of federal unions such as PSAC, CAPE and PIPSC, in previous rounds of bargaining. And like other non-monetary benefits in collective agreements, it was agreed to in exchange for other things, such as withdrawing demands for wage increases during recessionary periods. If the Conservatives want to change the sick leave system, they need to negotiate with unions and not legislate changes, as many suspect they will try to do.
8. Unions will not back down.
Federal public service unions will reject the change to the private plan. PSAC, the largest of the unions, with well over 100,000 members working in the core public service, has said that it will not negotiate away the current sick leave system for the weaker, privately managed, for profit system that the government is pushing.
9. If the government has its way, insurance companies will be the only winners.
The government’s plan to get rid of sick leave and replace it with a private, for profit, short-term disability (STD) insurance plan is good….for big insurance corporations, which stand to win a massive contract. Indeed, STDs are never good for flesh and blood persons, and this one will cost public service workers more in insurance premiums and involve more time-wasting paperwork. Every time a worker is sick, even if for only a day, the insurance company will demand all sorts of paperwork before it issues a cheque to cover lost wages. This will have the effect of dissuading workers from staying home when sick.
10. Like in New York City, sick leave should be extended to all.
In 2014, New York City passed a law expanding paid sick leave to workers in all businesses with more than five employees. Today, any employee working for a business of this size can take up to five paid sick days off per year without fear of losing their jobs. In fact, workers can even use their paid sick days to take care of family members, including grandparents, grandchildren and siblings. Why don’t governments in Canada take inspiration from this and pass laws to ensure sick leave for all workers rather than attacking the negotiated sick leave of workers who deliver important public services?