Sick Days “Abuse”: More Nonsense from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Generally I try not to write about any “news” coming out of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, because their anti-union and anti-public service bias is so obvious. I did break down a few weeks ago and write about their latest attempt to push public/private sector pay “equity” legislation. And while I really don’t want to dignify their Labour Day claims of rampant abuse of sick days in the public sector, the methodology behind their claims is so flawed that it has to be commented on. There also needs to be some response to the many media outlets – other than the usual suspects – who unquestioningly repeated the  CTF’s misinformation.

Here is the CTF’s national data for working days lost per year to illness or disability. The numbers in this Statistics Canada table are averages. Any organization claiming to conduct valid public policy analysis should know that an average is not a reliable indicator of actual occurrences or trends. For example, if 9 workers in a 10-person department each take one sick day a year, and the 10th worker takes 15 sick days, the average sick leave in that department for that year is 2.4 sick days. That number doesn’t accurately represent the pattern of sick day absences in the department, nor does it accurately represent the actual number of sick days taken by any one worker. There may be widespread abuse of sick days in the public sector, and for that matter in the private sector as well, but an average doesn’t prove it.

The data in the table also combine all occupations into two broad groups: public and private sector. This grouping completely ignores the reality that there are many different kinds of jobs in each sector, each with different workplace conditions that might make workers more or less likely to get sick. And many public sector jobs involve unhealthy workplaces – for example, firefighters have a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer, and health care workers are regularly exposed to health hazards. There are some very valid reasons why public sector workers might be taking more sick days than private sector workers.

Also, the data include sick days taken for “illness or disability” [emphasis mine]. Here’s how Statistics Canada classifies reasons for absence from work. A worker’s reason for taking a sick day, as recorded in these data, could range from getting over a short-term cold or flu to dealing with a chronic disease or ongoing physical problem. The CTF’s press release talks demeaningly about “sniffles” or “golfing” as reasons for taking a sick day, and states that “government employees seem to be much more delicate” than private-sector workers. There is no way to reasonably assume this, based on the data the CTF provides.

The CTF also complains that “[g]overnment sick days add up to a lot of taxpayer money”, and posts this unedited 69-page document in support of the claim that the cost of those days last year in BC was $29.2 million. Since the CTF can’t be bothered to explain its documentation or show how it arrived at that figure, I don’t see any reason to give the figure any credibility. But if the “included” and “excluded” labels on the job positions listed in the document are referring to unionized and non-unionized positions, maybe the CTF should acknowledge that managers and other non-unionized public sector workers are also using taxpayer dollars for sick days – not just members of the “big unions”.

Finally, the CTF doesn’t spend a lot of time in its analysis looking at how sick leave in Canada’s private sector is defined or used. That may be because such data are notoriously difficult to locate. But let me suggest a few things that can go on with sick leave in the private sector that usually don’t go on in the public sector:

  • no paid sick days at all (which can mean that the number of days workers take off because they are sick are listed as zero, even if workers actually are sick or are taking time off because they’re sick)
  • limited amounts of sick days (which can mean that workers who are sick take time off using other reasons, thus under-reporting the actual amount of absence due to illness)
  • workers getting fired because the employer doesn’t believe that they’re sick, or because the employer thinks that they’re sick too often (which can make other workers reluctant to take or record sick days)

Without knowing the extent to which any of this happens, the CTF’s comparison of public and private sector data is even more questionable. The conditions for taking sick days in the Canadian public sector are easy to find (here’s the information for the federal public sector); the private sector, not so much. If there is no reliable information on whether differences exist between sick leave provisions in the private sector and in the public sector – or, if those differences exist, what those differences are – a comparison of data from each sector is meaningless.

On Labour Day – a holiday that celebrates all workers, not just unionized ones in the public sector – the CTF could be gracious, and acknowledge the valuable contributions that workers make to the world. Even, dare I say it, the contributions of unionized public sector workers such as firefighters, police officers, correctional officers, health care workers, municipal workers, and others who help keep our communities safe and liveable. But instead, the CTF has chosen to use Labour Day as an excuse to bash public sector workers, and to bash them on the basis of unreliable and poorly-analyzed data. And that’s shameful.

RELATED POST: The ‘Compensation Equity Act’: Anything but Equitable

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