The war against public sector sick leave

Today President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement proposed slashing the federal public sectors paid sick leave from 15 days a year to 5.

This prompted this tweet from Andrew Coyne:

Which got my interest.

Now as far as I can see the case against the federal public sector having 15 paid days a year in sick leave is that the absentee rate – or days workers call in sick – in the private sector averages to 8 times a year. And thus, ipso facto, something must be wrong with the public sector. Because Adam Smith and other infallible invisible hands.

What it doesn’t tell you however, is whether public sector workers are taking paid sick days on days they aren’t sick or if private sector workers are coming to work sick.

In other words, the public & private sector absentee rate gives us no clue as to how many days a year a person is, in a medical sense, sick.

Which is a question for the medical community, not businessmen or politicians.

Calculating this is very difficult and depends much on demographics and, indeed, the nature of one’s job. Public health workers, who are exposed daily to disease, should be expected to be sick more days than a closed accountant’s office with 2 or 3 employees working in separate rooms.

But the Centre for Disease Control does have some useful, and suggestive, statistics which the kids on the street call Table 2. Mean physically unhealthy days in last 30 by demographic characteristics, chronic disease conditions, and risk factors. Adults >= 18 Years, BRFSS 2009. I encourage you to examine the table in full, as it’s usefully divided into gender, age, ethnicity, economic status and so on. But the gist is this survey found the average person, whether through illness or injury, felt unwell 3.6 days out of 30.

What does this tell us about sick leave? Well, the average [federal] public sector worker called in sick 1.25 days every 21 working days of a month. The average private sector worker, 0.66 days.

Let’s adjust 3.6 days so that it reflects, approximately, how many working days per month a person feels unwell. Which by my calculator is 2.52 days per 21 working days.

In other words, and by extrapolation, public sector workers went to work feeling physically unwell 1.27 days per 21 working days per month and private sector workers 1.86 days.

Which is suggestive that cutting sick leave has nothing to do with public health and more to do with other factors.

Such as, perhaps, spite.