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Treasury Board President Tony Clement responds to a question during in the House of Commons on May 9, 2013. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Treasury Board President Tony Clement responds to a question during in the House of Commons on May 9, 2013. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Globe Editorial: First Take

Banking unused sick days is a nonsensical benefit that has to go Add to ...

Of all the employment benefits ever created, bankable sick days are the most illogical. The idea that an employee can accrue unused sick days invalidates the contention that the benefit is related to the employee’s health. In some unionized workplaces where the benefit still exists, bankable sick days have become merely another form of holiday pay that can be cashed out at the end of a career at great expense to the employer. The federal government is right to target the bankable sick day regime in the federal civil service for replacement with a more credible system.

Other than being a generous benefit, the accrual of sick days is not that useful to federal employees, according to Treasury Board President Tony Clement. A federal civil servant must be off work for 13 weeks before being eligible for long-term disability insurance payments, so seriously ill employees with fewer than 13 weeks accrued sick days (nearly 60 per cent of the federal workforce) have to stay home at their own expense.

The major issue, though, is the unsustainability of a benefit that creates a massive liability for the federal government – and all levels of government, in fact. Sick days were a hot-button issue in Ontario last year, when the government reduced the number for teachers from 20 to 11 per year, and ended teachers’ ability to bank unused ones. In Toronto in 2009, bankable sick days were at the heart of a month-long garbage strike; the city conceded the issue in the end, and municipal garbage collectors can still bank their sick days and cash them out on retirement. These are not “sick days” – these are civil service lottery winnings.

Federal civil servants are not among the lucky ones who can cash out their accumulated sick days at retirement. Absenteeism, however, is a problem. Federal civil servants take an average of 18.2 sick days per year, three times the average taken by private sector employees. Union officials dispute the numbers to some degree, but so large a disparity cannot be explained away by correcting for hyperbole. Absenteeism is a huge burden that is costing taxpayers $1-billion a year, according to the Treasury Board.

Mr. Clement is proposing to overhaul both the short-term and long-term sickness benefit programs for federal employees in a way that he says would protect employees’ right to stay home when ill, move them more quickly into long-term disability programs when needed, and also reduce absenteeism. He has not stated exactly what changes the government hopes to implement, because the issue will be settled in collective bargaining that won’t come until next year.

But Mr. Clement has set the table by hinting that bankable sick days will be a key issue for the government. He has no choice. Bankable sick days are too expensive, too inefficient and too out of whack with the private sector to continue as a civil service benefit.

Note to readers: An early version of this editorial failed to clarify that federal civil servants are not among the unionized public employees in Canada who are able to cash out their accumulated sick days upon retirement.

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