Public sector workers took a record number of sick days last year -

Public sector workers took a record number of sick days last year

Expect the disparity between public and private sector sick leave to keep growing

(Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

(Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)

Is a health crisis ravaging Canada’s public sector workers?

One might wonder after looking at the latest stats on worker absenteeism in Canada. In 2016, civil servants missed a record number of workdays, according to annual job market statistics released last Friday by Statistics Canada. All told, the average public sector worker missed 13.5 days of work last year, the most ever. That compares with 8.3 days for workers in the private sector.

As a result, the inactivity rate of government employees—a measure of the number of hours lost as a share of the usual full-time work week—hit a record high last year.

The above figures reflect both sick days (for illness or disability) as well as days missed for personal or family reasons, though the former accounts for the vast majority of missed days.

The gap between public and private sector absenteeism has been widening for years. Last year that disparity hit an all-time high, as government workers took 5.2 more sick days than those in the private sector.

Under Stephen Harper’s government, reform of sick-leave benefits in the federal public service sparked a backlash among government employees and became an issue during the last federal election.

Union agreements allow federal employees to take up to 15 days off work each year, over and above their vacation time, and any unused sick days can be banked and carried forward into future years. At last count, federal employees had banked 15 million days of unused sick leave.

In 2015 the Conservatives passed legislation allowing the government to override existing union contracts, limit the number of sick days and scrap sick-leave banks, replacing them with new short-term disability programs. The Harper government claimed doing so would save Ottawa $1.3 billion, and the government booked those savings in its final budget.

RELATED: The sick day scam

The Trudeau government, on the other hand, campaigned on a promise to repeal that legislation, and when Finance Minister Bill Morneau released the government’s first budget in March 2016, he reversed the $1.3 billion in savings. Treasury Board President Scott Brison scrapped the measures in March, ahead of negotiations with public sector unions, saying only that he wanted to “modernize” sick leave rules.

Then in a series of announcements in December, just before the Christmas holidays, Ottawa signed agreements with three unions representing federal workers (the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees and the largest, the Public Service Alliance of Canada) leaving the existing sick-leave programs untouched.

At least for now. The unions agreed to create an “employee wellness” task force that, at some indeterminate point down the road, will re-examine sick leave practices within the federal civil service. Whether that task force will look at replacing the existing sick-leave regime with a short-term disability program, similar to what the Conservatives envisioned, is unclear.

So just why do public sector workers take so many more sick days than their private sector counterparts?

According to a 2013 StatsCan study, as much as 80 per cent of the sick-leave gap is the result of the make-up of government workforces. It noted that workers in the public sector are generally older, there are more females than males, and most are unionized, and that all three of those groups tend to take more time off. After those factors are accounted for, StatsCan said, the sick day gap between the public and private sector in 2012 fell from 4.1 to 0.8 days.

Since then the average public sector worker has only grown greyer, and more unionized—in just the four years since 2012, the unionization rate among public sector workers rose from 75.2 per cent to 76.3 per cent, while the private sector unionization rate fell to 16.1 per cent from 17.5 per cent.

In other words, expect the disparity between public and private sector sick leave to keep growing wider.


Public sector workers took a record number of sick days last year

  1. Public sector workers are sick. Sick in the head if they think that the average Canadian does not understand that these are nothing more than entitlements. This is not sick pay. It is extra vacation.

    So when public sector workers say they deserve more pay as the same position in the private sector is slightly higher paid that is a complete fabrication.

    Public sector unions take advantage of weak politicians who worry about labor unrest as it could cost them a few votes. If the conservatives want a platform that would get major support they should take this up as average Canadians are sick of the entitled public servants including politicians.

  2. Is it too much to ask that the reporter consult the *medical community* to determine how many days people are actually sick/injured per year.

    Such stats exist.

  3. And look what happened when Harper tried to fix this. The unions campaigned against him and then got rewarded with a raise from Trudeau. Along with a signing bonus. And they got to keep their sick days. Disgusting.

    • Cathy Bowslaugh, what you neglected to say was the signing bonus, which was next to nothing, was for giving up their pension plan. When I left the federal gov’t I had over 2 years of sick time unused, I am not sure how this reporter can lump disability and sick time together?

  4. I just retired from federal government. I left over 2500 hours of accumulated sick leave unused. However, I saw so many people abused the sick leave. They used sick leaves for the sake of using them. They are also very proud of their actions. Some even said I am stupid of not taking sick leaves. I hope government changes it. The reason for having higher sick leaves last year simply because some employees thought the new contract would change to the new system. They better used up all their accumulated sick leaves.

  5. Swamp Fever?

  6. Many employees who get within 2-3 years of retirement find out how many sick days they have. This results in those with big #s of days taking off either Monday or Friday.

  7. And another opinion columnist uses numbers that don’t reflect what he’s moaning about. When you include people that are on disability, of course the numbers are high. Please reconcile the supposed misuse of sick days with the supposed $5 billion liability for unused sick days that are banked. It’s not possible to have a mass of people abusing it and millions of days banked at the same time. And lastly, private sector sick days can not be properly accounted for as many of those workers are not paid and are not effectively on “sick leave”. Shoddy journalism Mr. Kirby.