Sick Days


Last week the Globe and Mail reported “Sick Days costing Ontario school boards $1-billion a year, report says” in reference to a report from the not-for-profit School Boards’ Co-operative Inc.  I can’t easily find a copy of the report but for purposes of this commentary, but I am not sure I need it.  If any of our readers gets a copy I would appreciate if you would send it over to me in case I am missing something important not covered in the press release.

The merits of sick days

We used to offer employees five ‘personal days’ each year and this year we moved to seven.  The key in setting the level is to balance the need for employees to have time away from work for illness and medical appointments that can’t be scheduled outside work with the need for the employer to maintain productivity of the workforce.

If a business does not offer sick days, then employees will need to use vacation days instead – which unfortunately will create an incentive to come to work when sick (and possibly make others at work sick) or to forgo important medical appointments which might move an employee from a short term absence to a longer-term illness.  We call this ‘penny wise and pound foolish’.

At the same time, any system that requires employees to be ethical and honest is going to be exploited by those employees who at the margin see ethics in a different light and see sick days as an earned entitlement as part of their compensation rather than the insurance program that it was originally intended to be.

For the teachers

I have nothing against teachers.  In fact, I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of teachers that helped get me to where I am, in particular Olenych (Grade 5), Latimer (Grade 10 and 12 math), and Janeska (Grade 13 physics).  One of my sisters is a teacher (now a guidance counsellor) and I know how much of her heart and soul she has put into helping kids.  My kids have some fantastic teachers – so good that I never have to go to the school to fight over whether it is me or the teacher that isn’t doing a good enough job.  Dealing with how much teaching costs and how much value we get for our money is certainly not a black and white issue.

The School Boards’ Cooperative Inc. report tells us that sick days for teachers in Ontario has risen to an average of 10.29 days in 2014-2015 up from 8.86 in 2010-2011.  We are reminded that banking sick days was eliminated in 2012.  These are the only two facts on the subject that I have been presented.

Some have commented that this data is clear evidence that the cancellation of banking sick days has caused teachers to fake illness more frequently – the argument is that if they can’t get the benefit banked they may as well take it now.  While it would be easy to jump on this bandwagon, and I am sure it is true for some teachers at the margin, I find the data surprisingly sparse, making it a little premature to reach that conclusion.

How many sick days were used in three school years in between?  Does it always go up each year or does it fluctuate both up and down?  Were there any better and worse winters for the flu reported in our hospitals and how does that correlate with the ups and down?  How much variance is there between school boards and individual schools and what issues have been identified that correlate to those differences?  What variance is there in seasons? – is the increase in sick days uniform over the school year or is most of the increase in June?  Are there more sick days for lower grades where kids carry and transfer colds more easily?  Can we look at sick days by the age of the teacher?  Do younger teachers with their own kids end up sick more often?  Has there been a steady trend of increases over the past decades?  If yes, does that tell us something about declining health of the population or maybe a declining commitment to teaching?

For those that are frustrated with what they perceive as an overly generous compensation program for teachers, I understand the desire to conclude that this is another example of teachers taking unfair advantage of taxpayers because of their negotiating power.  We need to dig in on this deeper before we jump to conclusions.

For the taxpayers

The above commentary should not be mistaken by teachers as an endorsement of taking paid sick days when one is not actually sick.  The commentary also shouldn’t be mistaken by teachers as suggesting that better statistics won’t emerge to substantiate abuse.

Sick leave was originally designed as an insurance program.  Some people were considered lucky to not get sick and have to miss work – others were considered unlucky to get sick and be stuck in bed.  Somewhere along the way, sick leave programs have very often become entitlements.  To me this comes back to culture.  In most organizations, clients pay us for our time, if we are not working, then our company isn’t earning money to pay us.  So when we don’t work, the only question is whether we should lose the pay that hasn’t been earned – or whether everyone should earn a little less each day to pay for those that miss work and are paid nonetheless.

The answer at ASI is that we, for the most part, are paid to work.  Originally there were no sick days, but along the way we realized as a ‘family’ that we need to support each other when someone on the team can’t work.  The ‘balance’ for us is the 5 to 7 days mentioned at the outset.  We are satisfied that, at that level, most of us will get the time we need for illness without using vacation; and for those that need more, then vacation and unpaid leave make up the balance.  This may sound generous or it may sound harsh, but what we are saying as a group is that after a reasonable level of support from each of us then you are going to need to rely on yourself.  That is your incentive to arrange appointments outside work hours when possible.

To me 10.29 days sound like a lot – on the other hand you are dealing with a workforce exposed to hundreds of kids in close quarters so maybe it is reasonable to expect that colds and the flu are going to flourish.

The answer to me is twofold – first, culture.  If you are a teacher and your colleagues make fun of you because you don’t take all of your sick days – then there is a problem with the culture.  What you want is for the teachers that show up each day ready to work to remind the ‘free riders’ that they need to be showing up for work.  Second, when the province and school boards come around to bargaining again, they need to put the cost of all the extra sick days back onto the total compensation of the teachers.  If teachers ‘need’ lots of time off being sick, then taxpayers ‘need’ to reduce their base pay or some other form of compensation so the growth in the total value of what we pay teachers stays reasonably in line with the economy as a whole.

I don’t like to rush to conclusions with limited data – it would be great if we were given more complete data annually so we could make a better study of the subject.  If the province needs my help negotiating the next contract with teachers I am happy to help.





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