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Most sick days are used for something other than sickness. A survey finds that most employees call in sick for reasons other than personal illness and companies with poor morale have even more last-minute no-shows.
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Most sick days are used for something other than sickness. A survey finds that most employees call in sick for reasons other than personal illness and companies with poor morale have even more last-minute no-shows.

Many sick days are hooky days

By Elwin Green
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Apparently, the gift shop plaque that reads, “The kitchen is closed today because of illness — I’m sick of cooking!” expresses many an employee’s sentiments.

A recent survey found that two-thirds of workers who call in sick at the last minute do so for reasons other than personal illness. According to the 2007 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, workers’ reasons for taking off sick included family issues (22 percent), personal needs (18 percent), entitlement mentality (13 percent) and stress (13 percent).

Such unscheduled absences can cost a large business more than $760,000 a year, said CCH, a division of Amsterdam-based information services company Wolters Kluwer. And that is just in direct payroll costs, without counting lower productivity, lost revenue and the effects of low morale.

For all of those reasons, CCH employment law analyst Pamela Wolf believes that “traditional sick day policies are becoming outmoded.”

Furthermore, Wolf said, the alternative uses of sick days are not entirely unjustified.

“Many employees today are asked to give 110 percent on the job,” she said, “to do more with fewer staff, work long hours and handle work-related issues after hours from home.

“But these workers may also be part of dual-earning families, or they may be single parents or caregivers for aging parents. They are willing to go the ‘extra mile’ for the company, but they are also taking back the time when they need it to care for themselves and their families.”

Except for the 13 percent with the entitlement mentality, perhaps. They’re just playing hooky.

Punishing honesty

Which presents another problem with sick days: If Alice Faithful and Bernie Slacker both have five sick days available, and both remain healthy for an entire year, and Alice does not take her sick days and Bernie does, isn’t that punishing Alice’s honesty?

Wolf did not go with “punish,” but acknowledged that the traditional allocation of sick days can leave honest workers “disadvantaged.”

Companies discipline workers who they believe are abusing sick days. Indeed, the survey indicates that disciplinary action against employees who misuse sick days is the most widely used “absence-control program.”

The survey also indicated that the most effective absentee policy to have is paid leave banks, or paid time off. Under a PTO policy, an employee is allowed a certain number of paid days off per year to be used as he or she chooses — vacation, sick time or just a mental health day.

PTO firms

Only 60 percent of the companies surveyed use PTOs, down from 70 percent a year ago. But only 20 percent of companies used PTOs in 2000, and Wolf sees them as the wave of the future, along with buybacks and bonuses in which employees receive either cash or free hours for unused sick days.

With paid time off, Wolf said, Alice’s “disadvantage” would disappear, because Bernie would no longer be driven by a “use it or lose it” allocation of sick days.

Even as many employers are making increased use of alternatives to sick days, Congress is engaged in a prolonged consideration of whether or not to make sick days available to more people.

In March, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would require most businesses with 15 or more employees to offer those employees seven days a year of sick leave, which could be used to care for a family member as well as for one’s own personal illness.

Advocates say the legislation is needed because nearly 60 million workers receive no sick days from their employers. The fact that many of these are in low-wage occupations makes them feel that they “can’t afford to get sick,” because missing work would make an already small paycheck even smaller.

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