Despite attempted remedies, the city of Hamilton is once again in a position to pay over 11.5 million dollars for sick time to union employees for the year 2013. Can you speak about sick time issues within large organizations. What factors contribute to high rates of sick time? Which of these factors does the city have some degree of control over and what should the city be doing to better manage this costly issue to taxpayers? Professor Ryder's reply is as follows:
Goodness. Where to begin. I think your question needs some context. * Is the City of Hamilton unique in paying "sick time"?
No. Every organization, regardless of size, has human employees and as humans, we get sick. So every organization, public and private, has to manage "sick time." Some small organizations have a simple approach- if you can't work, you don't get paid regardless of the reason. Most medium and large-sized organizations try to make reasonable allowances for sick time by compensating employees when they cannot work due to illness. There is an "unwritten rule" that such absences should be relatively infrequent.
In a unionized environment, "sick time" is often specified in a contract. I understand that police, firefighters, teachers and postal employees (to name a few) often have a maximum number of sick days per year. Let's say they get ten days. There are even provisions that allow someone to "bank" unused days. The concept is that if you are hit with a major illness - such as breaking a leg or recuperating from a heart attack or a course of cancer treatments - you can draw from the bank without losing pay.
A source of controversy has been what to do with unused, banked sick days. Some organizations allowed people to draw down the bank as an employee retired. In the public sector, that practice is being reduced or eliminated and many long-term employees are not happy. I suspect some employees have begun to see "sick time" as an entitlement for which you must "use it" or "lose it."
* Is the system at the City of Hamilton being abused?
The City of Hamilton is one of the five largest employers locally. It has somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 employees. It has an annual operating budget over $1.0 billion with the majority of that going to wages. When sick time is added across the organization, it will seem like a large number (much like the costs of termination which were announced last week). We learned that the number is $11.6 million. In isolation that may seem high (though it is around 1% of the city budget) but the number is a combination of the average number of days of sick time and the pay given to unionized workers.
I think the better indicator for comparison purposes is the number of days lost to sick time. We learned that the tally is 10.5 days per employee - a little less than one day per month but also two working weeks per year. We learned that 10.5 days of sick time is the same as the Canadian average for the public sector while the Ontario average for the public sector is 8.8 days of sick time. Finally, in the Ontario private sector the average number of sick days is 5.8 days.
In the aggregate, it is not clear that Hamilton is experiencing any unusual level of sick time among its employees. Yes, the rate is higher than the private sector but remember that included in that number would be sick time for police and firefighters, sanitation personnel and snow plow operators, bylaw enforcers and front office clerks. (Note: The Hamiltonian has been advised that sick stats for Police, were not included in the aggregate. This may have been a misunderstanding reflected in the article. - this clarifying comment has been added by Hamiltonian staff and Professor Ryder has been advised accordingly)
* How can sick time be reduced?
I am reminded of the person who thinks that "lawyers" are awful people but his or her lawyer is pretty good. Insert any job you like in the quote. Senator? Politician? Teacher? and so on. I share this because there may seem to be an issue in the aggregate but each case is unique.
The City of Hamilton has a policy that a doctor's note is only required for absences of five days or longer. That might be generous. Many organizations require a note after three days. But if the City moved to requiring notes for a one day absence, expect to see more people running to clinics, emergency rooms, urgent care centres, and family doctor offices taxing a system already under much pressure. And have you tried to get a same day appointment with a doctor lately?
The one day absence is usually triggered by the employee themselves. They call their supervisor and tell them they are sick and won't be coming to work. Put yourself in the position of the supervisor. What would you do? We know we don't want sick employees in the workplace possibly spreading disease to others or even citizens/customers encountered on the job. People who are married or have children are exposed to diseases in the home. Statistics Canada noted that workers with children at home experience two more sick days per year than people without children in their lives. Is a sick day just for the employee? If your eight year old has chicken pox and you need to care for them, is that a sick day? If your 82 year old parent has fallen and is being rushed to the hospital, is that a sick day? How sick do I have to be? If I am extra tired after working to clear snow after a big storm, is it wrong to take a sick day to rest up?
My point is that it is very difficult to know when someone is truly sick versus abusing the system. Generally you have to trust the employee to do the "right" thing.
* Flipping the Story
Most organizations use an "attendance management" system. Any one sick day does not cause an issue but attendance management tracks sick days to see if there is a pattern. In the last year, has an employee been
sick ten times on a Friday at the start of a long holiday weekend? Hmmm. Suspicious - might need further examination. Are the employee sick days before or days after returning from vacation? Hmmm. But no system would catch the odd day, here and there, when an employee is faking. There are 250 working days in the year. No system would notice two fake days per year.
Attendance management can also look at the kinds of illness being reported. In a hospital, some staff are prone to soft tissue injuries or strain as they move sick patients. The attendance system could note an increased incidence of these injuries and that could lead to some extra training for employees at risk.
Some organizations flip this story to create a second line of attack. Rather than focus on "sick days", the organization focuses on "wellness" and some factors which increase the likelihood of employees getting sick. Research has shown that cigarette smokers use more sick days per year than non-smokers so many organizations offer employees smoking cessation programs. Stressed employees use more sick days so
some organizations offer employees tips to reduce stress both on the job and in their home life. Alcohol and substance abuse can lead to illness so many organizations offer programs to help employees kick those habits.
I apologize for this long response but it is relatively easy for a politician to be "outraged" and to "demand answers." The health of a workforce, like the citizenry at large, is a very complicated picture and simple solutions are not easy to find. This story plays well into the urban myth of a public workforce that is overpaid and under- productive. There certainly are people who abuse the system and these people should be found and removed. But as long as the City employs humans, humans get sick. It is not realistic to believe the 11.5 million cost can be driven to zero or even cut in half.
Finally, as a side bar, it would be interesting to know the annual drug benefit cost paid by the City to employees. My gut feeling is that the cost to provide employees and their families with prescription medications (and attempt to deal with sickness or wellness) is higher than the absenteeism costs!