Labour

Sick-leave waste makes taxpayers queasy

Here’s some good news for Canadian taxpayers.

The federal government recently announced an overhaul of Ottawa’s sick-days system, to be completed sometime next summer.

Why is it good news?

Because this program is open to abuse, and is costing Canadian taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in lost wages alone, according to a report obtained by CBC News a few months ago.

This apparent epidemic of bureaucratic no-shows, in the words of the CBC report, means that “on any given day, there are about 6,000 federal workers collecting disability benefits equal to 70% of their regular income.”

Under current rules, workers can use up to 15 paid sick days and five family days a year, in addition to vacation time.

The problem is these sick days are bankable. And if an employee can accrue unused sick days, the program becomes a form of entitlement, rather than an insurance against illness.

It can also lead to high rates of absenteeism in later years of work. In fact, according to the Treasury Board, retiring public servants used nearly 45 sick days on their last year of employment.

Provinces also pay the price of these questionable benefits.

Last summer, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation released data from Statistics Canada showing public workers in Saskatchewan used an average of 11 days in 2012, while the average Saskatchewan worker outside of government used just 6.9 days.

Is working for the government more hazardous to your health? I don’t think so.

The Conservative reforms will also help the nearly 60% of the federal workforce who have fewer than 13 weeks of accrued sick days.

Federal employees must wait 13 weeks after being off work before receiving long-term disability benefits.

Some employees cover this period by using accumulated sick leave, but those who haven’t accumulated their 13 weeks must stay home without a paycheque when they suffer from a serious illness or injury.

Unions might perceive these changes as a form of bureaucrat bashing, but the way I see it, it’s about increasing civil servants’ productivity.

And making sure the government becomes more efficient in delivering its services to the public.

As the taxpayers federation puts it, “If government workers used the same amount of sick time as everyone else, then governments could cut costs and reduce taxes for everyone.’’

We all know how hard it is to cut government spending, let alone eliminate useless departments. So anything that can improve efficiency and lower costs for taxpayers is welcomed.

Let’s not forget that the federal public service has swollen by one-third over the past decade.

According to the National Post, the number of federal public servants was 282,955 in 2011, compared to 211,925 a decade earlier.

This growth far outpaced population growth, and represents an added financial burden on the shoulders of Canadian taxpayers.

If taxpayers must pay all these salaries — and don’t forget the pensions — improving efficiency of the workforce is not too much to ask. And curbing sick-leave costs is a first step in this direction.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.

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