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An Oakville high school teacher speaks to her students in this May 25, 2011 file photo. In 2012, the Liberals cut teachers’ annual sick days and removed their ability to bank unused days.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's teachers and education workers are taking more sick days now that they can't bank them for a cash payout upon retirement – a move that a new report says is costing school boards close to $1-billion a year.

In 2012, the Liberals sliced teachers' annual sick days from 20 to 11, and removed their ability to bank unused days. The new plan resulted in $1-billion in one-time savings, the government said.

But a new report from the non-for-profit School Boards' Co-operative Inc., a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, found that there has been a "significant increase" in absences. Teachers and education workers took an average of 10.29 sick days each in 2014-15, up from 8.86 days four years prior and before the changes were implemented. Sick leave as a percentage of total payroll has increased 21 per cent during that same period.

The direct cost of absenteeism across the province was estimated to be $921,866,466 in 2014-15, the report said.

Teachers can take as many as 11 sick days a year paid at their full salary, and another 120 short-term leave days at 90 per cent of their salary.

In a bid to save money, the province imposed contracts on public-school teachers in 2012 that cut their pay, reduced their sick days and eliminated their ability to bank sick days.

The Liberals removed the retirement liability from its books, saying it saved $1-billion. However, school board sources say the new plan has led to increased sick-leave costs, and principals are left filling more sick-day holes. Previously, teachers could bank unused sick days for a cash payout of up to about $45,000 on retirement – roughly half the full value of those days. The report shows that education workers are taking more sick days at full salary, leaving school boards to find money within their education budgets.

The SBCI study is based on data from 55 school boards, and looks at sick days before the changes and in the three years since the new sick-leave plan was implemented. The study does not include the cost of sick days prior to the new plan.

It found that elementary school teachers took 10.01 sick days on average in 2014-15, up from 8.67 four years prior. High-school teachers, meanwhile, took 8.76 sick days, up from 7.67. Custodians and early childhood educators also took more sick days over that time period.

Lynn Porplycia, chief operating officers of SBCI, an organization set up to provide guidance to public, Catholic and French school boards on compensation issues, declined to comment on the report.

The Ontario Public School Boards' Association was unavailable for comment.

Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, did not respond to an e-mail. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario's president Sam Hammond was unavailable for comment.

Nicole McInerney, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Liz Sandals, defended the revised sick-leave plan, saying that it provides new teachers income protection against long-term illnesses.

"Each school board is responsible for managing the costs associated with sick leave, including supply teaching costs," Ms. McInerney said in an e-mail. "This is best accomplished by providing a working environment that supports employee well-being and regular employee attendance at work, while carefully monitoring and working with employees who require regular or sustained absences."

But concerns over teachers taking too many sick days were raised by school boards in the last round of negotiations – and led the government to make changes.

Labour lawyer Howard Levitt said the public sector is more generous, but he is concerned about the checks and balances around teachers taking sick days and whether school boards are challenging the ones that appear suspicious.

"Although this plan obviously dramatically ‎exceeds what employees in any private sector employer that I have ever heard of receives, I never cease to be amazed at the exorbitant giveaways at all levels of the public service," he said.

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