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Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario working in his deskless office in Ottawa. Photo by Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Is there any reason that federal civil servants would be more susceptible to illness than other Canadians? They work steady, predictable hours and enjoy comfortable and generous pensions.

But on average, civil servants in Ottawa are absent for 18 days a year (combining sick leave and long-term disability). That amounts to practically a month off work, not including vacation time and statutory holidays. This level of sick leave is 2 1/2 times the rate in Canada's private sector and almost twice the rate in the rest of the public sector.

An aging work force and low morale in an era of fiscal restraint can certainly take a toll. But the absentee rates in the federal public sector are so off the scale that they point to a human-resources issue that needs to be managed. It is a serious and costly problem, and it is welcome news that the Conservative government is focusing on it.

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Treasury Board officials, led by Minister Tony Clement, have been working on reforms in this area for months and have launched a $5.6-million strategy to develop a new model focusing on prevention and rehabilitation that will save millions of dollars in the long run. It is to be hoped that this week's budget will finally unveil these overdue reforms, introduce short-term disability, overhaul the existing long-term disability plans (which date back 40 years) and target worker absenteeism and abuse.

Currently, civil servants get 15 paid sick days a year, and use on average 12 of them. In many sectors of the federal bureaucracy, unused days can be banked, effectively turning them into a perk. The direct costs of absenteeism total $1.3-billion. The government should eliminate the banking of unused sick days. The number of paid sick days should also be reduced, after which employees could be made eligible for short-term disability, at 70 per cent of their income. (Currently, they must wait 13 weeks to qualify for long-term disability.)

There is no obvious medical reason for federal workers to be calling in sick at such an exaggerated rate. They have no known special vulnerability to disease or stress. And the country can't afford the concept of banking unused sick days. Federal employees should not be rewarded with a perk simply for being less sick.

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