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Public sector workers took six more sick days off than private sector workers in 2023, the widest the gap in absenteeism between the two classes of workers has been in nearly 40 years.

Government workers were off the job an average of 13.4 days because of illness and disability last year, according to Statistics Canada, compared with 7.5 days for private sector employees. Both groups took fewer sick days than in 2022, but while the number of private sector sick days fell below where it was in 2007, the number of public sector sick days only declined slightly from an all-time high the year before.

The latest sick day numbers come as Canada’s public sector work force has swelled. As of December, the public sector had added 566,000 new jobs since the same month in 2019, nearly keeping pace with the private sector, which added 713,000 jobs over the same period.

Part of the sick day gap comes down to demographics. Public sector workers tend to be older than those in the private sector, and women make up more of the public sector work force. Statscan has found both groups take more sick days than the population at large.

But another big factor is the far higher rate of unionization, with more than three-quarters of public sector employees covered by unions last year, versus 15 per cent in the private sector. Workers without union coverage are far less likely to have paid sick leave.

One factor may narrow the sick day gap in the coming years. Federal rules came into full effect last year that guarantee a minimum of 10 paid sick days for roughly one million employees in private sector industries regulated by Ottawa, such as banks, interprovincial airlines, railways and telecoms.

Decoder is a weekly feature that unpacks an important economic chart.

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