Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Calling in Sick
My cousin Bill once said that his ambition in life was to spend more time retired than he spent working, and he apparently succeeded. He was an officer for the Orange County sheriff’s department and never called in sick a day in his life. When he retired, he was able to collect a quarter-century’s unused sick leave as a lump sum.
In Republican campaign commentary today, this is known as “boat money.” Meaning that when public employees retire, they take their unused sick leave and use it to buy a boat to go fishing in the Golden Years. It’s cited as an example of overly generous public-employee benefits, and in this one instance it pains me to say I think the Republicans are right. Sick leave shouldn’t be a retirement piggy bank.
When I worked at the newspaper, vacation and sick leave were to some degree determined by union contracts, which trickled down even to those of us not covered by them. Vacation benefits were fairly liberal, but the sick leave was pretty Spartan. You got five days a year, and couldn’t accumulate more than ten days no mater how healthy you were.
In a newsroom full of healthy kids embarking on their careers, that wasn’t a problem. Nor was it for longer-term employees. In 19 years at that office, there was one year — when I was sidelined a week after a hernia surgery and had two serious bouts with the flu — that used up my accumulated ten days. In other years, I typically used two or three days, and some years none at all.
That tight leash on sick time taught you not to abuse it, and it was reinforced by some unwritten interpretation of the rules. In the newsroom, we spent the first five hours of the day putting out the paper. If someone came in with a bad cold and worked through the morning, he or she would be excused for the afternoon with no loss of pay. At a small-town paper, where one reporter out sick cut the news gathering staff by 15 to 20 percent, you didn’t want to let people down by not showing up. There were several days when I could legitimately have called in sick but put in the morning anyway, because I knew we were short-staffed and my absence would put a strain on everyone else.
To be sure, we had a few employees over the years who were particularly susceptible to Monday Morning Disease, also known as the wicked hangover. But that problem was infrequent enough that we could live with it. Bottom line: sick leave was used sparingly and not seen as a goody benefit.
There was a human relations consultant who worked with us in the 1980s. He suggested an interesting idea on employee time off that was never approved, but that I still think, years later, has a lot of merit.
His proposal was that there should be no distinction at all between vacation and sick time. Instead of getting two weeks’ paid vacation and a week of sick leave, an employee would get 15 days a year off with pay. How the employee used it was the employee’s business. No more than five days could be carried over to the next year, and if an employee had worked full-time the first ten months of the year, he or she could borrow against next year’s earned time off in the last two months of the year, to cover an unexpected illness. It was a good idea, but problematic in today’s private-sector environment, where too many employees get no vacation or sick leave at all.