The abuse of sick leave in the civil service is just another sign of how the federal government fails to deal with underperforming employees, writes Philip Cross in the National Post.
This column is based on Cross’ MLI paper, “A Sickness In The System“.
By Philip Cross, Jan. 6, 2015
Negotiations with federal public service unions are set to resume and sick leave benefits should remain a part of the discussions. It is well-documented that public sector workers claim sick leave more than the private sector. Less understood are the reasons for this gap, which has its origins in incentives, the public service culture of entitlement to superior benefits and the refusal of government unions to tell its members that the gap exists and is widening.
Public sector unions don’t communicate to their members how munificent are their pay, benefits, pensions and job security compared with the private sector.
In their defence, the government unions cite a Statistics Canada regression analysis that allegedly found that differences between public and private sector leave use are explained mostly by more unionization as well as an older labour force. That unions play a large role seems obvious, but is misleading. The key variable is the public sector’s seemingly unlimited access to taxpayer funds, not unionization. High unionization rates in the private sector would not lead to similar sick leave benefits, because firms would risk insolvency. After all, public sector-style pay and benefits in the auto industry helped drive Chrysler and General Motors into bankruptcy. It is not enough for unions to ask for unaffordable benefits; it requires an employer willing to pay for them. As for aging, this highlights another problem with regression analysis; does causality run from an aging labour force to more sick leave use, or do the superior pensions and benefits of the public sector attract older workers? There are many instances of middle-aged people joining government for the pension and medical benefits. A unionized government job is a wonderful place to grow old and retire.
Public sector unions don’t communicate to their members how munificent are their pay, benefits, pensions and job security compared with the private sector. If members appreciated more their privileged position, they would understand better the public’s demands to curb some of these benefits. Instead of educating its members, unions keep demanding more, widening the gap with the private sector and further alienating those who pay for their benefits.
While the public service may not fully grasp the extent of its benefits, the private sector certainly does. The response to my November article on sick leave benefits from private sector media was overwhelmingly positive and clearly based on a pre-existing sense of unfairness it feels about public sector pay and benefits. Public sector unions should be aware of this hostility and not just plug their ears, stick their head in the sand and chant that there is no problem. A problem exists and it needs to be discussed and addressed in negotiations with governments.
The strongest reaction to my article was from civil service line managers — not senior executives, but the unionized middle managers who have to deal with rank and file employees. Their only criticism was the report did not go far enough in describing the extent of the problem and senior management’s complicity in tolerating some of the excess.
Sick leave abuse is just another manifestation of how the public service refuses to deal with its problem of poorly performing employees.
One manager explained why Canada Border Services and the Correctional Service have the highest claims for sick leave. In these departments, when an employee calls in sick, their shift must be filled by calling in another employee, who collects overtime since their work was unscheduled. This other employee calls in sick next week, necessitating someone else works overtime. This creates an incentive where employees benefit financially from claiming sick leave. Conversely, teachers in some provinces can cash out their sick leave upon retiring, an incentive to not waste sick leave. Lo and behold, teachers use an average of only 7.2 sick leave days a year, half the 14-day average in Border Services and Correctional Services. This demonstrates how sick leave use can be altered by restructuring incentives.
Some managers expressed doubt about the reported level of sick leave in government. Many employees do not diligently submit sick leave forms, hoping the manager will simply forget or give up trying to collect them. This would affect the sick leave data reported by departments and collected by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. However, it is not clear why employees would underreport their sick leave use in Statcan’s labour force survey, and its count of sick leave is very close to the PBO’s.
Governments can help clarify these issues by publishing more data. Federal government employees must submit a weekly time use report, including leave claims by day of the week. Treasury Board has put some of this data in the public domain, such as employees claiming 45 days of sick leave in the year before retirement as they use up leave before it becomes worthless the day they retire. However, other data such as sick leave use by the day of the week (especially Friday’s and around long weekends) or the distribution of leave among employees are not compiled, giving the appearance this is done to avoid embarrassing the civil service. The public has the right to know the extent and patterns of leave use by civil servants.
Most government employees are honest and diligent. However, a distinct and identifiable minority abuse the system. This needs to be addressed. Line managers want to do so, but are not supported by senior managers who take the ‘big picture’ view that writing off a certain percentage of their department’s spending as waste is the cost of doing business, while ignoring the even wider implication for taxpayers. We can and must do better. Sick leave abuse is just another manifestation of how the public service refuses to deal with its problem of poorly performing employees. This contributes to the toxic workplace that reduces productivity and inflates costs.
Philip Cross authored A Sickness in the System for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and formerly worked at Statistics Canada.