Preventing Sick Leave Problems: Steps an Agency Can Take To Reduce Problems

The number one cause for employee discipline in the Federal sector results from problems related to leave. some of the attitudes that may cause sick leave problems and some prevention strategies.

The number one cause for employee discipline in the Federal sector results from problems related to leave. Arguably, the number one leave problem is sick leave abuse. This series of articles addresses issues managers and supervisors face in confronting sick leave problems in the workforce. In this part, we will look at some of the attitudes that may cause sick leave problems and some prevention strategies.

While the jury is still out on whether FERS will work as a viable retirement system for the Federal workforce, one aspect of FERS has had an unforeseen and many believe a major negative effect on management in agencies. The grinches on the Hill who developed FERS rejected CSRS’ provisions encouraging the preservation of sick leave to enhance retirement benefits.

This decision has had a profound effect on the use and abuse of sick leave by Federal employees. In fact, the Bureau of Prisons in a 2005 study found substantial differences in sick leave use between these two categories of employees for no other identifiable reason. As a person recently promoted to senior citizen status (I now get cheap movie tickets), I would expect younger workers to have less sick leave use on average (excluding maternity leave reasons, of course).

It has become clear that most FERS employees (hired after December 31, 1983) consider sick leave as a use or lose proposition. They may be justified in doing so as while they may amass a bank of sick leave, they lose it upon leaving Federal service or retiring. These employees also look at their private sector counterparts who get a benefit often called “personal days” and rightly ask the question, “What’s the Diff?”

The Diff

The law and regulations on sick leave are actually pretty clear, simple and readable. The U.S. House of Representatives tracks Sick Leave Law and GPO Access will give you OPM’s Regulations.

The law mostly leaves to OPM the determination of government-wide policy on granting sick leave and OPM is pretty strict about it. Primarily, sick leave is authorized for use by employees for their own medical appointments and for treatment and recovery from a non-job related illness or injury. The law and regulations allow limited sick leave use to care for family members, for adoption and to deal with a death in the family.

That’s pretty much it. In addition, Agencies may require the justification of sick leave use by medical or otherwise administratively acceptable evidence. So the “Diff” is that unauthorized or improper use of sick leave may violate government-wide regulations and result in administrative or disciplinary action. In Part Two of this article, we’ll look at identifying sick leave abuse. In the meantime, let’s look at preventing problems.

Preventing Sick Leave Problems – Agency Steps

The importance of taking preventative action in reducing the potential for employee misconduct cannot be stressed enough but supervisors need help to prevent sick leave problems. The key ingredients are:

• Supportive management above them including the intestinal fortitude (frequently lacking) to back up necessary actions.
• Good employee relations advisors that can draft good quality suggested counseling memos, restrictions and discipline, if necessary.
• Sound agency policies that are readable, communicated to employees and consistently applied. Readable and useful are key words. Executives, take a look at your leave rules, I’ll bet most of you can’t make heads or tails out of them but even if you’re a hardened Reg reader, most of you would agree they could be much more user (supervisor and employee) friendly.
• Creating, publicizing and supporting effective Employee Assistance Programs.
• Building effective internal public relations tools that gets out information on issues like the ones discussed here. Most agencies do good external PR but frankly lousy internal PR.
• Agency education and training programs that help supervisors identify and deal with these issues.

Preventing Sick Leave Problems – Supervisor Steps

Once the above are in place, supervisors can reduce or eliminate the potential for employee sick leave abuse on the front end with a few fairly simple actions. Take these steps and the likelihood of problems is small. In addition, these steps serve to lay the foundation for a sound case should corrective or adverse action become necessary:

  • Make sure you have a new employee checklist (not just for new hires but for anyone new to your unit) and make sure employees get a copy. The checklist should include clear procedures for employees to follow when they are absent from work due to illness or injury including:
  • Exactly how to report a necessary absence from work due to illness or injury. A requirement that the employee personally speak to the immediate supervisor or other designated and authorized individual within the first hour of their work shift or before if at all possible.
  • Exactly what to do if the supervisor is unavailable at the time the employee reports the inability to report to work including leaving a telephone number where they can be reached when the supervisor becomes available.
  • That the supervisor will monitor sick leave usage for each employee on a monthly or quarterly basis, and bring instances of above average or development of potential patterns of sick leave abuse to the attention of the employee(s).
  • When addressing attendance issues with an employee, emphasize the importance of the employee’s work to the overall success of the organization and therefore, importance of the employee being at work.
  • Identify situations that will require medical documentation such as:
  • Absences over three days
  • Scheduled medical procedures, treatments or requirements that will require substantial use of sick leave (E.G., surgery, pregnancy, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, etc.) These situations are easily documented and should never be allowed to become problems.
  • Suspected sick leave abuse
  • That requests for approval to use sick leave for absences due to medical appointments or treatments must be requested and approved in advance.
  • That you, the supervisor, will personally follow up with the employee by phone, letter, or personal visit in cases of extended, or inadequately or unexplained absences.
  • That employees experiencing medical problems should discuss them with you, the supervisor, but always with the Employee Assistance Program. Stress the employee’s entitlement to privacy regarding any medical problem.
  • That you, the supervisor, will work with the employee to get through any medical problems they may encounter. But to do so, the rules must be followed.
  • Go over the checklist personally with each new employee. A good idea is to send it to them by an email that schedules a discussion and invites questions.
  • Take a minute at staff meetings to stress any general concerns you may have but privately address individual issues as they arise. Go back and read this again!
  • Keep communication lines open. I believe alienation (supervisor from employee) is the most common reason managers give up on employees. Once you give up, their days as an employee working for you are numbered.
  • Make sure sick leave policies are administered and applied on a fair and consistent basis. Do not make exceptions! Making unnecessary exceptions undermines efforts to establish and maintain good attendance among employees and often results in a negative work environment.
  • Take the time to learn about the causes of employee absenteeism. Read up on substance abuse and remember that prescription drugs are a much bigger problem in the Federal workforce than illegal drug use.

Federal employees are, on the whole, the most solid of citizens. The vast majority wouldn’t consider illegal drug use but that may not prevent them from falling victim to dependency on prescription medication. Also learn about depression and other illnesses that may be difficult to diagnose but cause real problems in the workplace.

In Part Two, we’ll look at what is and isn’t sick leave abuse including the identification of underlying causes of attendance problems that have a medical basis and in Part Three, some strategies to deal with this most complex of issues.

As always, any opinion expressed is mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.