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Treasury Board President Tony Clement responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday June 3, 2013.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government is putting public-service unions on notice that sick days will be targeted in the next round of collective bargaining.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement said the government wants to move away from the current rules, where workers can use up to 15 paid sick days and five family days a year, in addition to vacation time.

The Minister stopped short of accusing public servants of abusing the system, but questioned why the federal absentee rate is higher than that of other governments and the private sector, where he said the average number of sick days is 6.7.

"Look, I think that the great majority of public servants are, when they take time off, they are sick. But there's no question that the rate of sick leave, when you're looking at 18.2 days as an average in a year, is well beyond not only private sector norms but other public-sector norms," Mr. Clement said Monday at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

In its place, the government is proposing two new programs: one for short-term disability that would include provisions for someone being off for regular occurrences, like colds and flu, and a new long-term disability program for more serious problems.

"If you call in sick now, you'll get to call in sick in the future as well," Mr. Clement said. "The difference – the critical difference … will be there will be much more active case management. We'll call you up. The insurer will call you up: 'How you feeling today? Is there anything we can do to help you get better sooner?' That kind of engagement with the employee."

Public-sector unions questioned the timing of Mr. Clement's announcement, noting that collective bargaining to renew contracts that expire in 2014 and 2015 is still months away. Further, they note that Sunday was the first day of National Public Service Week, which the Treasury Board website says is an opportunity to "celebrate our work and show our pride in being public service employees."

Union leaders also took issue with comparisons of public- and private-sector absenteeism, arguing the private sector does not document sick days in the same way as governments do.

Robyn Benson, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, accused the government of misleading Canadians.

"It's Public Service Week, and instead of recognizing the important work these people do on behalf of Canadians, this government is accusing them of milking the system," she said in a statement.

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, claimed the announcement was "smoke and mirrors" aimed at taking attention away from the controversy over Senate expenses.

Mr. Clement said changes are needed not just to save money, but to better serve public servants. He said the current rules are more than 40 years old, reflecting a very different workplace.

"Mental illness, stress, anxiety, depression were not admitted to or acknowledged," he said. "Cancer was much less treatable than it is today. So the workplace has changed dramatically in the past 40 years, but the disability management system has not. Employees are getting lost or forgotten in the system."