This piece was first published in the Hill Times on February 17, 2014.
There is a move by the current Conservative government to reduce sick leave benefits for the rank and file public servants. The argument is that the amount of sick leave being used has increased from the past and is excessive. Treasury Board figures show it at 18 days a year. This is more than a public servant accumulates each year. Looking at this ‘deficit’ usage, TB must be right about the increase. Public servants have to be drawing from the leave that has been accumulated over the years. Whether or not, TB does anything, this will eventually stop. Sooner or later, the public service will run out of sick leave credits.
Of course the above statement, as Tony Clement the President of TB is aware, ignores the unpaid sick days and long-term disability that are included in the 18 days. The impression is given that public servants are taking excessive sick leave. What is needed to truly understand the numbers is the total of each one.
For these, we have to ignore Tony Clement and go to an impartial authority, the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), Jean-Denis Fréchette. He is reported saying, “the government’s claim that the average federal public servant takes about 18 days a year in sick leave is to some extent inflated by the fact that it includes people on long-term disability and also includes unpaid sick days.” The actual numbers according to the PBO are paid sick days 11.52 per year, 6.3 days unpaid leave and 0.44 days due to a work-related injury. The facts are different than the image presented by Clement.
Clement said his plan to insist on changes through collective bargaining this year is further reinforced by the PBO finding that federal government spending on paid sick days grew by 68 per cent in a decade. Once again, the PBO gives the rational for the increases: 33% due to an increase in the number of paid sick days used, 25% due to increased wages, 25% due to a higher population in the public service and 17% due to other factors. The 33% is a legitimate concern.
Thinking about both the use of sick leave and the increased cost makes me think about Freakonomics, the book written by Stephen J. Dubner and Stephen D. Levitt. Freakonomics represents an unconventional way of looking at things. It is a ground-breaking and revolutionary way of examining behavioural economics. Dubner and Levitt take two facts that seem to be unrelated and analyze them as cause and effect phenomena, letting us view the world in a new way. They called this new field of study Freakonomics.
The premise of Dubner and Levitt is that the world is not unknowable. If the right questions are asked, new knowledge is gained. You just have to learn to look at things in a new way. So how does this insight relate to the sick leave issue? Looking at increased use of sick leave and the increased costs as an effect, we have to search for a possible cause.
It occurred to me that a way to find a cause would be to look back on news reports about changes in the public service. This is not a scientific approach but one that calls for insight. Two articles that were published seem to suggest a potential cause.
On August 13, 2010, Tony Spears wrote an article in the Sun newspapers titled, “Federal Executives Rake in Bonuses”. To quote from his article, “Public servants tightened their belts last year while their bosses made millions more in bonuses, even as recession gripped the land.” These were not actually ‘bonuses’ which were reduced by 70% due to a promise by then TB President Vic Toews. This was the total performance pay for executives. According to the TB documents obtained by the Globe and Mail, the expenditure rose in 2008-09 by an increase of 19%. At-risk pay and bonuses combined for $70.1 million in 2008-09. In addition, senior executives had their cap on at-risk pay increased from 9.6% to 12% of salary for some executives and from 16.4% to 20% for others.
Could the increase in sick leave costs be related to the increase in the senior executive salaries? Is there a correlation? In other words, could there be a cause and effect? The damage to the public service morale could be devastating given the knowledge that executives are rewarded disproportionately. The rank and file worker had approximately a 1% to 2% increase at the same time the senior executives were awarding themselves the 19% increase. The equation could be: increased salaries for executives = decreased morale for employees = increased sick leave costs. Could the solution simply be: reduction or removal of inflated executive ‘bonuses’ = increased morale = less sick leave taken by employees.
Could the increase in sick leave taken be due to micromanagement? The same article stated that the executive ranks swelled by 56.4% from 2001 to 2012 while the public service grew by 27.6%. This meant that it was necessary to find work for these new executives. The solution, increase micromanagement and reduce the ability of the rank and file to do their job without constant interference. Once again, a cause and effect situation can be visualized. More executives manage fewer employees = reduced morale, increased stress on employees = more sick leave used. The solution in this case could be simply the reverse. Fewer executives = increased morale = less sick leave taken by employees.
In other words, you don’t have to take the leave away from the employees to reduce costs. Take away executives or reduce their benefits to reduce costs. But will this ever happen?
On January 14, 2014 Kathryn May wrote an article in the Ottawa Citizen, “Review targets public service executives” It states the Conservative government is planning to review the work of the senior executives that could change their compensations and structure. We have heard this before. Consultants have been hired. They meet with and discuss their proposals with senior executives. A report is submitted. There are many caveats and the report goes nowhere. Senior Executives have once again defended the status quo. Even when changes are implemented, this is mainly smoke and mirrors. The outsider cannot see what the insider is actually doing.