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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 32, No. 20 * November 6, 2000

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Ode to Sick Leave Abusers

One of the most cherished employee benefits is sick leave. Most public agencies have policies that give employees the right (i.e., the entitlement) to accrue some amount of paid sick leave, such as eight hours per month. This time may be accrued in a sick leave bank and is often something that accrues a cash value paid to the employee upon separation, retirement, death, etc.

Sick leave provides what amounts to short-term disability insurance. That noble purpose was created as a benefit in the post-World War II world to encourage employment stability and make the organization an attractive competitive place for employment and retention. However, sick leave management has become extremely complex.

The first complication is that we have trouble understanding the word “sick.” New technologies, new diagnoses, new treatments prompt increasing demands from employees to visit doctors, physical therapists, get checkups, have blood tests, get allergy shots, take the kids to all their medical visits, or accompany mom and pop or grandma and grandpa to the doctor’s office.

The acute distress suffered by employers in the administration of sick leave is compounded by the administrative work, training needs and pain relievers, associated with applying the Family Medical Leave Act. Added to this recipe for complexity are the vague interpretations and definitions in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To further add to the clinical depression of HR directors is the fact that a small percentage of employees regard sick leave as an entitlement to use as paid time off when they or members of their immediate families are not ill. Most employees, fortunately, do not fall into this category. Unfortunately, a few do and they display remarkable tendencies to become too ill to work on Fridays, Mondays or the day before or after holidays.

Sick leave: outdated concept
The truth, not often spoken out loud, is that sick leave is a traditional and outdated concept that is not only hard to manage but may, in fact, cause more harm to interpersonal relations than it adds value.

For example, sick leave verification, especially for persons with patterns of unscheduled absences, may involve doctor notes and confrontations with management over employee veracity.

In turn, all four parties in the sick leave equation feel oppressed by the system. Employees feel picked on and can be turned into antagonists in relation to the employer. Physicians’ offices are often lined with loitering employees waiting for the office staff to finish writing the “please excuse Jimmy” letter to be signed by the next staff member at the office who walks by.
The employer is put in the position of having to challenge employee statements or require and pay for “fitness for duty” medical evaluations in which one doctor’s opinion is pitted against another’s. Finally, the tax payers foot the bill for a process that is difficult to manage, time-consuming and goes against the basic notion that pay should focus on work performed and time worked rather than pay for time not worked.

Combined leave gives single solution
The HR Doctor predicts the increasing substitution of a single form of paid-time-off or combined leave instead of the multiple separate time off policies such as sick leave, vacation, administrative leave, etc.

In a paid-time-off model there is only one category of leave and the same amount is available to all employees. The leave may be used when illness strikes, or for any other more positive purpose. In terms of scheduled time off, all employees are treated with a sense of equity and the employer spends less time chasing down and monitoring the two-hour sick leave used last Friday.

The HR Doctor sees paid-time-off being augmented with short-term disability income protection insurance so that after some period of time, such as five consecutive days, of medical inability to work, the insurance program provides an income subsidy such as 80 percent of regular pay for the employee — that’s an 80 percent disability payment which may not be subject to income taxes.

Add a further supplement for those very unfortunate and hopefully very rare massive medical problems such as those following occurrences of heart attack, major accident, organ transplant, chemotherapy treatments, etc., and the package will be more equitable and require less “process” frustration.

Finally, sick leave, though perhaps a benefit of the last century, is not likely to go away anytime soon because it is thought to be an entitlement by many and enshrined in personnel policies and labor agreements to the point where it is the fringe benefit equivalent of petrified wood. However, it will evolve and that evolution will be a good thing for employees and public agencies.

The HR Doctor wishes you good health and ask you to please wear your seat belts. And don’t forget to visit at

Ode to Sick Leave Abusers

As a final note, the HR Doctor offers an ode to the few sick leave abusers with great apology and great respect for the late poet Shel Silverstein:

“I cannot go to work today” said Maintenance Worker Robin Kay
My voice is hoarse
My throat is sore
I’m sneezing, coughing and even more
My eyes are bloodshot
Skin is blue
It’s hard to move
I’ve got the flu
My temperature is high
My glasses broke
If I get up, I think I’ll choke
There’s only one thing I can do
I’ll call the office and report the flu
I’ll tell them I am too weak to work
I’ll use my sick leave as a perk
It’s my entitlement to use, you see
They can’t question my veracity
If they want a note from a doctor’s pad
That’s extremely simple to be had
I’ll talk to the nurse about my pain
And the Doc will sign just to keep herself sane
The doctor knows I am really fine
But if no note is written I’ll start to whine
Not to hear me whine and gloat
It’s easier just to write the note
“Robin needs a day off with pay
Tomorrow she should be okay”
They’ll have to get along without me today
I’ll be home on sick leave with pay
I use my sick leave as soon as I earn it
For Fridays and Mondays I prefer to burn it
I’ll ask for added donated leave
If I ever have cancer or heart disease
So I’ve made the call, being weak and pale
I left the message on the boss’ voice mail
Now I can roll over and go back to bed
’Til the mall opens up and the newspaper’s read
What? What did the TV news just say?
They said today is Saturday
I’m feeling better, there’s no more pain
My call to the office was all in vain
Saturday is my day off, for sure
I’ve just found a sick leave cure.


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