What’s ailing our city workers?

May 3, 2012

Psst! Don’t tell City Hall, but I know a guy who knows a guy who can get you bottles of vitamin C for just $5.99. If you’re willing to spend a little extra, he can find you some of that echinacea all the kids are into, too.

He buys the stuff at the local drugstore, I’m told. I don’t ask too many questions, but I hear it helps to ward off colds and generally boosts your immune system. Combine that with sleep and you’ve got a good recipe for getting sick less often.

But I know what you’re thinking. That’s just crazy talk.

If you really want to cut down sick days, the City of Guelph has stumbled on a far more sensible way to do it. This week, they agreed to spend $150,000 on a software program that will help them figure out how to get their employees to show up for work.

It turns out our fair city has a bit of a sick days problem among staff on the municipal payroll. They’re apparently as illness-prone as those kids in daycare who lick door handles. And it’s getting worse.

City of Guelph employees took an average of 10.2 sick days last year, up from 9.7 days in 2008. Compare that to workers in the Canadian private sector, who take an average of only seven sick days a year.

There’s also a problem with something called “culpable absence,” or “a voluntary unwillingness to work,” according to a recent report by city staff. If that doesn’t anger you as a taxpayer, it should.

Between 2008 and 2011, the number of days taken off by city employees from sickness or injury grew to 18,945 from 14,755. Last year, short-term, long-term and workplace injury absences cost the city nearly $1.5 million — up from $920,000 in 2008. So what’s going on?

We all get ill. We all need to occasionally take sick days. But why is it that our municipal employees take off so many more days than the rest of us? Are workers in the private sector just healthier? Maybe they take better care of themselves? If you believe that, you probably also believe in unicorns.

This is no idle debate. Sick days matter an awful lot right now in Ontario, where the leader of our debt-wracked province has asked teachers to do their part to reduce our deficit by accepting a two-year wage freeze and an end to the practice of cashing out their unused sick days — a gift that’ll cost Ontario $118 million this year.

That practice of paying out teachers for unused sick days represents a $1.7-billion liability for Ontario, a hefty sum for a government facing a $16-billion deficit.

But the suggestion that sick days ought be cashed in only when you’re — ahem — sick, was met with the usual howling for Dalton McGuinty’s blood from teachers’ union types. As if sick days were a God-given entitlement, not a privilege.

There’s plenty of reason to be wary when municipalities bring in drastic moves to curb absenteeism. In 2010, Kitchener approved a 24-hour shift cycle for its fire department — a project that promised to cut down on exploding overtime costs among firefighters.

Guess what happened. Firefighters started taking even more time off, raising overtime costs to $694,000 — far beyond the $216,000 budgeted.

Don’t get me wrong. When the city says it wants to reduce rates of absenteeism by about 10 per cent, to get in line with other municipalities, I’m all for it.

But there has to be a simpler way to get public sector employees to show up to work, like the rest of us. We should care because we’re paying their salaries, and the costs of their absences. And it ain’t cheap.

I’m just saying — I know I guy who can get you all the vitamin C you can handle. Just pretend it’s candy. It tastes good. It helps fight colds. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than $150,000.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears every third Saturday. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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