More on Public Sector Sick Days “Abuse”

A few months ago I wrote about the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s completely unsupported allegations of rampant sick day “abuse” by British Columbia’s public sector workers. Sadly, similar accusations have also been flying around in Ottawa, where Treasury Board President Tony Clement is threatening to crack down on “exceedingly high absenteeism” in Canada’s federal public sector.

The federal government’s proposed reforms to public sector sick leave were announced last year during National Public Service Week – a week during which, ahem, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement thanking Canada’s public servants for their “dedication, professionalism and commitment”.

Now the Toronto Star says an investigation by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) suggests that federal public sector workers do not take significantly more sick days than private sector workers. (Thanks to David Doorey for alerting me to the story.) The PBO is an independent office of Canada’s Parliament that is mandated to provide, among other services, estimates of “the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction”. It undertook the investigation of sick leave costs after a request by Paul Dewar, the Member of Parliament for the riding of Ottawa Centre – a riding in which about 25% of the registered voters are federal public sector workers.

The full text of the PBO report is here, and it contains some very intriguing information.

  • The Treasury Board Secretariat (Clement’s office) calculated the average length of leaves due to illness for federal public sector workers in 2011-12 as 18.26 days . However, its calculations included time off for workplace injuries, and absences by workers on long-term disability. If those are removed from the calculations, according to the PBO, the average length of leaves due to illness drops to 11.52 days.
  • The PBO report estimates that the cost of sick leaves by federal public service workers has increased almost 68% between 2001-02 and 2000-12. However, the report points out that the number of federal public servants has increased during that time, and that salaries for federal public sector workers have also increased. So increases in costs for sick days are not necessarily because more sick days are being taken – but because more workers and higher salaries means higher overall costs for sick days.
  • The PBO report cites Statistics Canada research indicating that there are some significant demographic differences between Canada’s public and private sector workers. The average age of public sector workers is higher; there are more women workers in the public sector; and there is a higher rate of unionization in the public sector. When the effects of these differences are removed from calculations of public and private sector absenteeism rates, the difference in average annual absenteeism between the two sectors is only 1.1 days.

The report also notes that the PBO was not able to obtain information on absence rates in individual departments,. It plans to continue its investigation to see if there are significant difference in absenteeism patterns or costs among different parts of the federal public sector.

Frankly, with the federal government threatening extensive cuts to public service jobs, and  increasing numbers of federal public sector workers claiming work-related anxiety and depression, it wouldn’t be surprising if federal public sector workers were taking way more sick days than private sector workers. But the PBO report indicates that they aren’t – and that Clement’s office is apparently manipulating numbers to support its claims of greedy public sector workers abusing taxpayer-funded privileges.

During National Public Service Week, Canada’s Governor General said,  “Canadians are fortunate to have one of the best [public services] in the world…The public service puts the social consensus into practice, providing Canadians with the support and services promised them by government“.  Sadly, Canada’s federal government apparently doesn’t have that same respect and appreciation for federal public sector workers.

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