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Sick leave is a job benefit, not a privilege

May. 30, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By JAMES STEPHENS   |   Comments

While managers may have the legal right to use sick leave restriction letters ["How to fight sick leave abuse," Ask the Lawyer column, April 19 issue], I could find no guidelines during my career on what constitutes sick leave abuse. There was no usable definition of what constitutes incapacity.

Is a headache sufficient reason to take sick leave? What about depression and other gray areas? Simply having a chronic condition may be reason for days off.

Having to submit to interrogation by a manager who may already be hostile toward an employee for absences is demeaning and rife with potential for abuse by the manager.

Not all conditions require a visit to the doctor, so requiring this documentation is not an effective way to respond to sick leave abuse.

Managers are not doctors and are not qualified to make decisions about what constitutes incapacity, especially in the absence of agency guidelines.

Managers are not employment lawyers and are not qualified to make judgments about what constitutes abuse.

My solution to the problem is simply to recognize that the employee's sick leave is his to use or conserve as he sees fit. When employees exhaust their sick leave, they may have to leave the service or take leave without pay if their incapacity continues. While this may seem harsh, it is a policy that recognizes that employees are responsible for their actions, and it treats all employees with dignity and respect.

When employees minimize use of sick leave, and provide exemplary service, they should be rewarded by payment or compensation for unused sick leave, as all now are at retirement since Congress in November approved sick leave credit for Federal Employees Retirement System employees.

Because sometimes the need is real, I would also allow employees who build large sick leave balances to donate portions of their sick leave to employees who have exhausted their sick leave. Currently, employees can only donate annual leave. This policy results in broadcast appeals for donations, and probably little response from employees, who value their annual leave more than their sick leave.

Policies are based on a mistaken idea that sick leave is a privilege and not a job benefit.

I did not abuse sick leave; I managed my health and medical needs. I treated my sick leave as an asset to be used. At one point, I had more than 1,500 hours of accumulated sick leave. On the day I retired I had no balance. My management went along, as I was upfront and had every hour approved, generally in advance. I went to human resources and inquired about standards, and found there were none. I went to the department website and found there were no rules to follow. I went to the Office of Personnel Management and found no assistance there, either. If there is an understandable standard, it isn't being promoted.

As I was not compensated under FERS for my unused sick leave, the result was a zero balance. This was the result of the way FERS was implemented. If I were still working, and under the current policies, I would probably save my sick leave aggressively.

The problem is that managers pretend that the problem is employees who abuse something that isn't theirs. This is a result of the way the agency treats employees, not the way employees "abuse" the system. Agencies should view excessive sick leave as a symptom of another problem, depression, job burnout, disagreements with management or whatever. They should address the cause, not the symptom.

Another idea: Rather than have categories of annual and sick leave, combine the two and provide leave, up to an annual limit, and allow unlimited accumulations. That way, workers can manage their leave in a self-interested way. The agency, in turn, will get a better-motivated employee.

Federal managers have more important work than jousting with employees about coughs and sneezes.

James Stephens retired in 2009 after a 31-year federal career. He worked at the Navy, Treasury and Interior departments.

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