Sick Leave Abuse: Part 2 – Identifying the Problem

Is taking sick leave discretionary? The government’s view is that sick leave applies to a few prescribed situations. What constitutes sick leave abuse and why do people abuse it?

In Part 1, we looked at some of the attitudes that may cause sick leave problems and some prevention strategies.

Judging from some of the comments to part one, there are a number of people who view sick leave as discretionary. Some supervisors apparently believe they may authorize its use without much restriction. Some employees view it as an entitlement. As Rhett Butler said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a d…,” what counts is the view of OPM, the regulator, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, which will decide your fate if you are found to abuse it.

The government’s view is that sick leave applies to a relative few prescribed situations. A signature, whether by an employee, timekeeper or supervisor attesting to an unauthorized use, constitutes at least misrepresentation and depending on the facts, fraud. After all, those signatures represent claims against government funds. If those claims are false, you figure out what to call it. My view is that there are two critical questions to ask yourself: one, “Did I take an oath to carry out the law?”; and two, “Is government service a public trust?”

We’ll look at all this closer in Part Three when we get to corrective action but let’s get on with identifying the problem.

It would be easier to address this topic if the answers were clear and unequivocal. As with most human issues, however, the issues can get muddy. There is some clarity so let’s look at those areas first.

Clear Violations

It is probably fair to say that on an official level, everyone would agree that the following constitute sick leave abuse:

  • Requesting and using sick leave instead of annual leave or leave without pay for a vacation, recreational outing or vegging out in front of the tube.
  • Making a bogus claim for sick leave for a medical appointment or treatment that never happened.
  • Requesting and using sick leave for a situation not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Providing false or altered medical documentation to cover an absence. This is a “twofer” because it will likely get you charges of both leave abuse and misrepresentation or falsification.

It’s also true that there are unethical, morally bereft, nasty and otherwise unpleasant people who will intentionally violate the rules merely because they want to, see no reason to be bound by commonly accepted mores or are just plain jerks. Fortunately, they are relatively few and frequently blatant in their behavior patterns. These people often remove themselves from the scene when the harsh light of attention is shed on them. These are the least likely top respond to any kind of fix. I think they are the easiest to deal with so ‘nuf said.

Less Clear

Human behavior is frequently difficult to categorize. Having observed and been involved a fair number of leave abuse cases, I think most other abuse falls into one of four categories: personality-driven abuse, patterns of leave abuse, the subjectively entitled and, the most difficult to address, substance abusers. People, being wonderfully diverse and infinitely complex, may exhibit more than one of these behaviors.

Personality-Driven Abuse

All of us have met or worked with hypochondriacs, people with lower stress or pain tolerance or those who may just be needier than others. Let me stress (although few will pay attention) that I’m not talking about individuals with treatable conditions. Sick leave was established for sick people. Whether we like it or not, the standard for using sick leave is that a person is incapacitated from performing the duties of the job. Not weary of, not fed up with, not as Scott Adams’ Dilbert says “having had the life force sucked out of you” by the uncaring “Boss” but incapacitated.

Few among us leap from bed and rush through necessary chores so we may go to work and self actualize by laboring in our always fascinating and spiritually uplifting jobs. People show up for a variety of reasons, most positive. Some, unresponsive to positive, may need negative consequences to show up and get through the day. All of us have days when the mere thought of going to work is abhorrent. Annual leave is the appropriate cure for that condition.

Obviously, this kind of abuse may be difficult to nail down. While we’ll talk about dealing with it in Part Three, strong manager traits of patience, persistence and courage (yes, courage) are required to get a handle on it. Bluntly, some people (generally a small number) may not be fixable and steps to advance their forward movement may be the only option.

Personality-driven abuse is generally accompanied by persistent generalized complaints on a variety of issues, claimed medical conditions in which all the symptoms are subjective, lack of self direction, difficulty taking responsibility for tasks, focus on insignificant or side issues while avoiding the main issue and the like.

Patterns of Leave Usage

Merriam-Webster says a pattern is “a reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, or other observable characteristics of a person, group, or institution”. Some patterns are pretty easy to identify and may involve absences:

  • When annual leave is denied
  • Sick Leave used as it is earned
  • On Mondays or Fridays, on the day after the work week begins or the day before it ends.
  • Days before or after a holiday
  • Days after pay is received
  • Days before or after a “work at home “ day or RDO (regular day off for you non- AWS practitioners)
  • Days when certain responsibilities devolve on the person, e.g., projects are due, they have responsibility for all or part of a meeting, they are in charge of an event, and the like
  • Involving excessive intermittent use for one or two days not involving a chronic, diagnosed health problem
  • Low sick leave balance after a period of Federal service with no major illnesses or chronic, diagnosed health problem
  • Suspicious or vague requests, e.g., after an overtime assignment is announced
  • Lengthy use with evidence of only a minor condition e.g., employee received a few stitched in a sports injury, has a black eye, has a minor, non-infectious condition such as a pollen allergy, etc.
  • Suspicious medical evidence e.g., no letterhead, document is a copy, signature is by staff member not physician, etc.

The Subjectively Entitled

Some people may come to work when they don’t feel well and put up an imaginary chalk mark signaling that they are owed for this. Others may see coworkers use sick leave for perceived minor conditions. Others may observe coworkers taking off to care for a family member and believe the individual has gotten away with something. Rationalization is not an uncommon justification for one’s actions. It’s interesting that these folks are often quite open about their feelings. They don’t have to hide them because those beliefs are justified.

Substance Abusers

Identification of substance abusers is the topic of books not a mere article or in this case, section of a part of an article. Substance abusers are frequently leave abusers. They may evidence all of the behaviors described above and then some. I have come to the belief that prescription drug abuse is a much bigger problem in the Federal workforce than illegal drugs and perhaps even bigger than alcohol abuse. One report says that more than 18% of Americans experience alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some time in their lives, another that an estimated 48 million people (ages 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in their lifetimes. This represents approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population.

As an employee relations practitioner employed by four different Agencies in my career, I saw relatively few illegal drug abuse cases. Perhaps this was because the abusers were much craftier than the managers, but I think that alcohol and prescription drugs were the abuse of choice. It also appears that cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine addiction are much more obviously debilitating. I think Federal employees suffering from illegal drug addiction had greater difficulty holding down a job and likely left before being identified in most cases.

The Food and Drug Administrations says that the most commonly abused prescription drugs are:

• Opioids: Also known as narcotic analgesics. Used to treat pain, opioids are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Examples include morphine, codeine, OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Demerol (meperidine). In the short term, these drugs block pain messages and cause drowsiness. A large single dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death. Long-term use leads to physical dependence and, in some cases, addiction.
• Central nervous system depressants: Commonly used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders. Examples are Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium), Valium (diazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam). They slow down normal brain function and can cause a sleepy, uncoordinated feeling in the beginning of treatment. Long-term use can lead to physical dependence and addiction.
• Central nervous system stimulants: Commonly used to treat the sleeping disorder narcolepsy and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Examples include Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine). These drugs, which can be addictive, enhance brain activity and increase alertness and energy. They elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Very high doses can lead to irregular heartbeat and high body temperature.

While managers should seek help when addressing any substantial leave abuse issue, expert help will be needed to deal with substance abuse of legal or illegal drugs. A good place to start is with an experienced employee relations specialist in your human resources office.

So far the article has addressed prevention and identification, stay tuned for Part Three which discusses some strategies to deal with this most complex of issues including but not limited to discipline.

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.