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Calling in sick costs: survey

Jennifer Kwan
Canada Post says temporary mailboxes may be needed this winter to protect worker safety.

Public sector workers are calling in sick more than private workers because they feel entitled and the difference in days is costing taxpayers up to $3.5 billion a year, says a group representing private businesses. It wants an overhaul of the practice to ease the strain on the country's pension system.

The report released by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business on Tuesday highlights sick days as a benefit that is adding to troubles with Canada's pension system, which it characterizes as "a disaster waiting to happen." It goes on to say public sector pension plans at all levels of government are massively underfunded, which will demand higher taxes and seriously strain Canada's economy.

In 2011, the overall public sector average for time of was 12.9 sick, disability and personal days a year, compared to 8.2 days in the private sector, give or take a few days depending on the size of the employer.

Based on that snapshot, the difference between the public and private sectors is around five days costing $3.5 billion, says the CFIB, which represents some 100,000 entrepreneurs across Canada.

"I don't think anybody believes that public sector workers just get sick more often, yet something makes them feel entitled to more time off," said Dan Kelly, the group's president and chief executive in a statement.

"Obviously, we want to be compassionate when people are truly not well, but the current system has entrenched a feeling of entitlement to those days off that has very little to do with being sick."

The group also notes federal government employees take the most time off by a wide margin, averaging 15.2 sick, disability and personal days a year.

The survey made a number of recommendations aimed at curbing costs including a call for sick day allotments to be aligned with those offered in the private sector, and for the accumulation of unused sick days to be discontinued.

Brian Lindenberg, a senior partner at consultancy Mercer, said both public and private sector employers are both tackling the same problem.

"Does it mean public service people are just taking the system for granted? I don't think you can make that speculation," he said.

"Employers in the private and public sector are more keenly aware of managing the need to manage absence in that disability and casual absence is concern to both."

The CFIB report comes as concern about the country's pension system mounts, given the perfect storm of an aging population, financial market turbulence and ultra-low interest rates.

Lindenberg says work needs to be done to restore the health of employer pension plans so that they are around in the future to deliver on the retirement income needs and expectations of future retirees.

He also suggests Canadians need to save more on an individual basis for retirement as state or employer pension plans are unlikely to meet the income needs of many retirees.

In a separate release, Mercer predicts the working age population is set to shrink by 2020, highlighting the pressure on unfunded national pension systems.

But the consultancy also notes that Canada took appropriate measures in the 1990s to mitigate the future impact of an aging population on its national pension system including an increase in Canada Pension Plan contribution requirements to an amount larger than needed to meet benefit payments at the time.