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Jean-Denis Frechette, Parliamentary Budget Officer pose for a photograph September 20, 2013 in Ottawa. In a report released on Oct. 28, 2013, the PBO says it expects to balance the federal budget books by 2015, despite slow growth.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Conservative government and public-service unions are digging in for a tough battle over sick days after both sides claimed vindication from a new report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Thursday's report from Jean-Denis Fréchette said the government's claim that the average federal public servant takes about 18 days a year in sick leave is "to some extent inflated" by the fact that it includes people on long-term disability and also includes unpaid sick days.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the PBO report confirms his assertion that paid and unpaid sick leaves work out to an average of 18 days per person a year, a figure he said is well above the private sector and shows reform is needed.

Mr. Clement said his plan to insist on changes through collective bargaining this year is further reinforced by the PBO finding that federal government spending on paid sick days grew by 68 per cent in a decade.

Public service unions argue that years of spending cuts have destroyed morale and increased workloads and workplace stress, causing more workers to take sick days or go on disability. In an interview, Mr. Clement rejected that suggestion.

"They have a degree of job security which is the envy of the private sector," he said in an interview. "So to say that I, Tony Clement, am making public servants mentally ill is ludicrous."

The PBO says the average number of paid sick days by public servants in the core public service was 11.52 per year in 2011-12, while 6.3 days were lost on average to unpaid leave and 0.44 days were lost to people who were away due to a work-related injury. Mr. Clement irritated unions last year by regularly using the larger number of 18 sick days, but his department has previously reported that the larger figure includes 6.3 days of unpaid leave.

As for the increase in spending on sick leave, the PBO report found salary paid for sick days in the federal public service is estimated at $871-million for 2011-12, up 68 per cent from the $519-million spent in 2001-02, after adjusting for inflation. The PBO report says 33 per cent of this growth is due to an increase in the number of paid sick days used, while 25 per cent was due to increased wages, another 25 per cent was due to a higher population in the public service and 17 per cent was due to other factors.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada – the largest union of federal public servants – argues the report vindicates its position that Mr. Clement's average is inflated by the inclusion of people on long-term disability. According to PSAC, most federal government workers take between zero and eight days in sick leave per year.

Robyn Benson, the president of PSAC, said labour has formed a united front to oppose what she views as an attempt by Mr. Clement to outsource management of sick leave to the private sector.

"Mr. Clement actually has been misleading Canadians about our sick leave," she said. "Somebody who has had a heart attack or open-heart surgery and is off for a year or two on long-term disability, you don't count that in in terms of sick leave and try to do an analysis and statistics from that."

The PBO report said accounting for disability is an important distinction to make.

"The health-related leave data collected by government departments and provided to the PBO by [Treasury Board] does not differentiate between sick days taken for regular illness and those taken as part of disability leave," it stated. "Consequently, the number of sick days reported by the government is to some extent inflated by those on disability leave."

Rather than weighing in directly on the issue of comparing sick days in the public and private sector, Thursday's report from the PBO points to a previously released study by Statistics Canada.

That report – which used a different data set that does not distinguish between paid and unpaid sick days – found workers in the public sector took 12.4 sick days a year, compared with 8.3 days in the private sector. However when Statistics Canada accounted for the "unique demographics" of the public sector – including the fact that the public service tends to be older, unionized and have a higher proportion of women – the difference in absenteeism of the two populations drops to 1.1 days.

The PBO report was prepared in response to a request from NDP MP Paul Dewar.

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