I was reading an opinion editorial on the abuse of sick days on this Labour Day holiday (Ottawa Sun, 2013). The author (I couldn’t find a name, so I’m assuming the masculine pronoun) seems to think this is limited to government, but I’m not so sure. His “statistics” sound quite damning, but they are very limited and very… well, anonymous. No references are given. I’m sure he could, if asked, tell exactly where he got them: but the fact that he doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary says a lot about himself and our culture. (No, wait: this was published in The Sun. It says a lot about the segment of our population that reads The Sun, which is our northern equivalent of Fox News. So it’s hardly unexpected.)
The article starts quite simply: “There’s little labour being done by public sector union workers these days, at least compared to their private sector counterparts”. Well I’m in the public sector union and I work very hard, so I take this personally. Having worked in both, I can tell you that my workload in both was very parallel: if not higher in the public sector. Because we have so many regulations and standards in the government, it takes us more effort to produce similar products. Except for the most serious standards, the private sector can (and does) let them “slip” a bit and gets away with nothing more than a hand-slap. One example: consider the requirement for a French-language version of everything that goes public. I knew this standard existed at my last job; I supported it and even knew how I would do it if I had to. But I never had to get anything translated. In my current role, most things that go public must have a French-language equivalent. I don’t actually do the translation, but I coordinate the work.
I’ve rarely seen coworkers abuse their sick time; or any time off that they’re allowed. At least no more than I saw in the private sector. Have I seen abuse? Absolutely. It drives me crazy. What’s worse is that I’ve seen managers, who see the abuse as clearly as I do, tolerate what they know is happening. But having worked, now, in the academic, private and public sectors, I’ve seen examples in all three. Many examples. The response should not be the blanket disdain of a sector, or reduction of sick days: it should be to give managers the power to correct their employees. In some cases that will mean a re-engineering (or correction) of management itself: but so be it. I’ve seen lots of examples of that, as well.
There are two stories I want to tell with regard to this subject. The first has to do with who is hired in the various employment sectors. This is one thing I’ve noticed: again, having to do with standards. The public sector tends to hire people who do tend to be a bit more “chronically ill” and who need that time off. Sure these days it appears that there’s a bit more chronic illness in the world in general; diabetes, obesity, asthma, HIV/AIDS are just a few examples. These require more time off “sick”: being unable to work or visiting the doctor. And legally (a government standard), an employer can’t fire someone for being “sick”. This doesn’t mean that the chronically ill are any less productive than their non-ill counterparts; it simply means they need more time at the doctor. When I was hired as a senior technical marketer, I was very clear about my TBI (traumatic brain injury) and its implications. But I’m quite functional as a TBI survivor and can compensate pretty well for how it affects my work, so people don’t notice at first. But when I literally couldn’t do some things (such as memorization) my supervisor started edging me out of responsibility and work, changing his attitude toward me. I even complained to HR, but there was nothing they were willing to do. I talked to a lawyer, but was told it would be very hard to prove the kind of discrimination I was alleging. And in the mean time I got a job with the government: where they are more accepting of what I can do, and I’ve been enormously productive in that context.
I don’t abuse my sick time. I don’t take very much of it; and I can also no longer “bank” my sick time like I could in Arkansas. I was working for a small firm in that state when I had my car accident and was in a coma for six weeks; another month for in-patient therapy and it was over three months before I could return to work. Because I had used so little of my sick/vacation time, I was fully paid the entire time I was in my coma. Which is a good thing, because my boss back then tried to fire me… well, to “let me go”… while I was in the coma so he could hire someone else in my position. If I hadn’t had the amount of sick and vacation time built up, he might have been able to do it. (Soon after my coma they changed the sick/vacation system there: so we had “paid time off” (PTO): more than either, but less than both combined. One had to use PTO for doctors, sickness and vacation. But that rather favours the young and the healthy, doesn’t it?)
So yes, there are people who abuse the system. And the reason, I’m sure, is that it is so easy to do so and there is little incentive not to do it. But there are people who need it: otherwise they minimize their doctor support in order to get vacation. So they get sicker, and that has implications on the workplace. (I can remember in Arkansas, when I was tech manager: after we changed to the PTO system, sending people home twice because they came to work sick in order to save their vacation time.) Instead of reducing what people can use, we must address the reasons people are abusing the system. But that might take more work from our management. And it seems many of us don’t trust our management that far any more.