Something is ailing the people who work for the federal government. They have among the highest absenteeism rates of any workers in Canada. Every day, about 19,000 of them are off on some form of sick leave. Federal civil servants, according to the Treasury Board, take off an average of 18 days a year because of sickness or disability – more than twice as many days as people who work in the private sector and nearly three times more than people who work in small businesses.
After many years of doing nothing, the government plans to bring down the hammer. Thursday’s budget is expected to pave the way for sweeping changes to the way sick leave and disability are managed. So far, the unions are responding about as you’d expect. “We are not interested in trading off sick leave,” Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told the Ottawa Citizen. “It is not going to happen.”
Across the country, sick days have become a lightening rod in the battle between governments and public-sector workers. For workers, they’re a valuable and beloved perk. For taxpayers, they’re an infuriating example of public-sector entitlement. Not only do public-sector workers take more sick time, they’re typically allowed to bank their unused sick days for years to come and cash them in whenever they feel faint. As well, disability claims for mental illness have soared. It’s not for nothing that Ottawa is called the depression capital of Canada.
The unions have an explanation for the epidemic of absenteeism and mental illness. It’s the government’s fault! As one PSAC official said on the CBC’s Power & Politics, “It tells us that our workplaces are poisonous right now.” Anti-union types, also predictably, say the government is full of freeloaders ripping off the system. But the best explanation comes from Andrew Graham, a Queen’s University professor of public-sector management who worked in government for more than three decades. As he told me: “The system is designed to invite abuse.”
Mr. Graham wants to stress that most public-sector workers are as conscientious and hard-working as he was. (He left government with 300 days of unused sick leave.) The problem is that, for the past 30 years, governments across the Western world have been eager to buy labour peace by piling on entitlements – which cost them nothing at the time.
“I remember when Treasury negotiated five days of family leave,” says Mr. Graham (who was responsible for running the Kingston Penitentiary, among other assignments). “And I said, who’s going to pay for it? And they said, Oh, you are. It was a classic case of central government trying to do a good thing and not thinking through any of the consequences.”
Any union worth its dues will fight for its workers’ right to exploit the system. And the government unions have more than earned their dues. “We did a pattern analysis of when people took their sick leave,” Mr. Graham recalls. “And we found that something like 60 per cent of leave was taken adjacent to another leave [such as weekends or vacation time]. But the union objected, and we had to stop doing it.”
Governments have allowed the unions to sabotage effective administration, and the results are all around us. When managers are thwarted at every turn from managing their work force, they give up. If it’s almost impossible for them to discipline or fire people, they won’t. “Over the years, you get the buildup of arbitration decisions that tie managers’ hands,” Mr. Graham says. “It’s entrenched in the culture. It’s not that people are evil. It’s a wink and nod kind of process.”
Thirty years of winks and nods and passing the buck to the next generation of taxpayers have produced a two-tier system of workers: people on the public payroll, and everyone else. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the average federal public servant now costs $114,000 a year in salary, benefits and pensions. Their banked sick leave alone amounts to a $5-billion liability.
The entitlements accumulated by public-sector workers are like barnacles encrusted on the ship of state. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to get rid of them. But if we don’t, the ship will sink – and so will our grandchildren.