Last week, the so-called Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF) released StatCan data about the number of days of illness and disability leave taken by public- and private-sector employees.
The Alberta release shows Alberta public-sector workers taking an average of 8.5 sick days per year while private-sector employees take an average of 5.1 days. This pattern is broadly replicated across all Canadian jurisdictions.
According to the CTF:
“The government could save millions each year if it could reduce the high level of sick leave among government employees,” said CTF Interim Alberta Director Colin Craig. “Politicians should tackle the problem by scaling back the amount of sick leave provided in the first place.”
“The good news is that Alberta bureaucrats are taking less sick time than bureaucrats in other parts of the country,” added Craig. “The problem is that Alberta bureaucrats still take far more sick time than those who don’t work for the government.”
The implication here is that government workers are abusing illness leave. The solution, says the CTF, is for governments to attack illness and disability provisions in public-sector collective agreements (presumably thereby reducing the cost of government).
The CTF’s conclusions are premised on the (false) belief that public- and private-sector employees are comparable groups. An important difference between these groups is that unionization is much higher in the public sector than the private sector (roughly 67% vs 10% in Alberta). Unionization profoundly affects the terms and conditions of work.
For example, virtually every collective agreement contains provisions for sick-leave and most have long-term disability benefits. The same is not true in non-unionized environments My experience is that unionized illness benefits are also better (i.e., provide more sick days) than similar benefits in non-unionized workplaces.
So, one explanation for the difference noted by the CTF is likely is that public-sector workers have a greater opportunity to stay home when they are sick (versus having to come to work ill).
Unionized workers are also less vulnerable to management retribution for calling in sick than are non-unionized workers. Consequently, public-sector workers are more likely to use their illness- and disability-leave benefits than are private-sector workers.
There may also be an argument that public-sector workers (particularly in health-care, education, and emergency-services) have greater exposure to disease and injury than private-sector workers. So they may be more likely to become sick due to occupational exposures. (I’d want to look into that a bit more, but my gut says that is likely correct).
These differences are fairly obvious so it’s strange that the CTF chose to ignore them and, instead, produced a misleading comparison (apples and oranges) that led to a false conclusion (“malingerers!”) and, then, to unsound public policy recommendations (“roll back sick leave so nurses and teachers have to come to work sick”).
(As an aside, this same data might well be used to support calls for more mandatory sick and disability leaves in the private sector so the kid making your frappuccino doesn’t pass on his cold to everyone in the coffee shop. The data might also be used to demonstrate how unions make the lives of workers better by allowing them to stay home when they are ill.)
Perhaps the CTF isn’t very good at research and analysis?
Or perhaps they were just trying to whip up some phony outrage to play to their donor base?
While most media outlets have ignored this crappy analysis, some have taken the bait. For example, Metro Calgary and AM 660 reproduced the CTF press release with zero analysis and no commentary from other affected parties. Global News did only slightly better, interviewing an employer-side labour lawyer.
This piece was first published by Labour & Employment in Alberta.