IMPACT to defend sick leave arrangements

Monday 30 April, 2012

IMPACT will defend the core arrangements for paid public service sick leave in talks due to start at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) on Wednesday. The union said its priority is to protect sick pay for staff with serious long-term illnesses and to maintain an facility for uncertified short-term sick leave.

Management wants to halve the maximum certified sick leave allowed to three months on full pay and three months on half pay. It has proposed better arrangements for people with serious long-term illnesses, but these are not as secure as current arrangements. Management also wants to reduce maximum uncertified sick leave from seven to three days a year.

Current arrangements generally allow six months fully-paid leave for certified sicknesses followed by six months on half pay in any four-year period.

IMPACT says the blanket reduction now proposed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would do little to address any abuse of the system, but would have a disastrous effect on those who suffer catastrophic and life-threatening illnesses, regardless of their previous sick leave record.

IMPACT general secretary Shay Cody, who will lead the union side in negotiations, said comparisons between sick leave levels in the public and private sectors were not always reliable. And he argued that management already had the tools to deal with any abuse that may exist. “Workers in the public and private sector are equally intolerant of any colleagues who ‘swing the lead’ and expect management to deal with the issue firmly but fairly. That does not mean reducing paid leave for people with cancer and other serious illnesses,” he said.

The union has also questioned the value of more than halving the amount of available uncertified sick leave. The most recent (2007) figures from the Comptroller and Auditor General show that 40% of civil servants take no sick leave at all and that the average amount of uncertified sick leave taken by each employee was well below two days in the year.

“The assertion that sick leave arrangements are treated by staff as additional holiday entitlement is well wide of the mark and the Department has put forward no evidence to support it. The evidence that does exist, from the Comptroller and Auditor General, shows that most public servants take very little of the uncertified sick leave allowed, and most sick leave incidence has been certified as necessary by a doctor,” said Mr Cody.

Back ground information

In 2011, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin set out the Government’s intention to “review and revise” public service sick leave arrangements between the first and third quarters of 2012. A recent report submitted to the Public Accounts Committee by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) said that public service sick leave currently costs the exchequer €550 million a year. Almost 90% of this (€488 million) relates to sickness that is certified by a doctor. Unsurprisingly, the largest cost is in the health sector, which is also the biggest public service employer.

Uncertified sick leave

The standard public service arrangement for uncertified sick leave (leave without a doctor’s cert) is that staff can take up to seven paid uncertified sick days a year. However, the most recent figures from the Comptroller and Auditor General show that 40% of civil servants took no sick leave at all (in 2007) and that the average number of uncertified sick leave taken by each employee was well below two days in the year. So the assertion in some circles that sick leave arrangements are treated by staff as additional holiday entitlement is well wide of the mark. Most public servants take very little of the uncertified sick leave allowed, and most sick leave incidence has been certified as necessary by a doctor.

Certified sick leave

The standard arrangement for certified sick leave is that staff can receive full pay for up to six months in one year, and half pay thereafter, subject to a maximum of 12 month’s paid sick leave in any four-year period. But there are variations. In the education sector, for example, teachers can avail of 12 months full pay for certified sick leave after which they receive no payment at all.

Again, the average amount of certified sick leave taken is far lower than the maximum allowed. The incidence of sick leave varies considerably across different sectors of the public service and among different grades and professions within the sectors. The fact that sectoral figures are currently reported in different ways also makes it difficult to make precise comparisons.

Figures recently given to the Public Accounts Committee by the DPER show an average total (certified and uncertified) absence rate of 11.3 days a year in the civil service, 8.3 days a year among primary teachers, 8.6 days among special needs assistants and 8.7 days among secondary teachers. Official figures for health and local government are given as percentages rather than days lost, but suggest a higher incidence than in education.

These figures compare with IBEC figures that suggest an average sickness absence rate of almost six days a year in the private sector. This figure rises to 8.3 days in large organisations – companies employing over 500 people – which is a better comparison for most public service organisations, and far closer to public service averages.

Public-private sector comparisons

Comparisons between public and private sector figures should be treated with caution for a number of reasons. For example:

  • The public service figures are based on a comprehensive record of sick leave actually taken, whereas the private sector data is based on far less comprehensive surveys of IBEC member companies, which are likely to be collated and defined with less consistency and accuracy.

  • Some public service figures are calculated to include weekends and public holidays if the staff member is absent over a weekend. In the education sector, an absence from Friday to Wednesday inclusive would show as six days’ absence, even though only four working days were missed. IBEC surveys do not include public holidays and are silent on the treatment of weekends.

  • Unlike the private sector, the sickness absence of civil service work-sharers is up-rated pro rata to reflect the proportion of their working pattern that’s taken as leave.

  • The civil service and other public sector employers actively recruit staff with significant disabilities, and often use flexible working time arrangements to accommodate this. This is likely to have an impact on the figures, if only to reflect the work sharers’ multiplier effect described above.

  • Similarly, the public service employs a high proportion of women who are more likely to avail of work sharing arrangements.

  • On average, the public service workforce is older than the workforce as a whole.