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News Opinion

Sick leave: One size does not fit all

It appears that the proponents of the concept of mandatory sick leave, including the authors of a recent commentary in The Sun ("Investing in health," Nov. 29), have had no experience in managing staff or managing a business.

Starting out as an employee in a consulting firm decades ago, I was informed that I would accrue vacation at a certain rate but was given no specific guidelines on sick leave, except that I should notify my supervisor any day I could not come to work due to illness. So I actually had paid sick leave, but was never told how much.

Years later, after moving into a management position that involved budgeting, I learned that the firm tracked the amount of sick days used by employees and that it averaged six days per year, the figure used in projecting overhead costs for the coming year. Of course, an average is an average, and some employees seldom took any sick days while others took well in excess of six days. Supervisors were told to keep track of sick days and counsel employees when their absences due to sickness began to extend beyond the budgeted average.

There was an underlying belief on the part of management that if employees were told that the firm had budgeted six days of sick leave, some (perhaps many) would view sick days as the same as vacation days and feel entitled to take six sick days off a year even if healthy (sometimes referred to by staff as mental health days).

Fast forward 15 years, and my firm followed the lead of a number of other consulting firms by acknowledging to staff that budgets were based on a specific number of sick days and that the subterfuge of keeping employees in the dark as to when they might get in trouble for taking too many sick days was likely not good for staff morale. So, they made a clever move and one that provided greater certainty for budgeting. They merged vacation and sick leave into a single category called "leave," and increased accrual rates, so that staff now accrued three weeks of leave each year for the first five years instead of two weeks.

The cleverness here was that they reduced overhead by reducing sick days to five from six in their budget. From the staff perspective, if you tended to be healthy, you gained an additional week of vacation. On the down side, if you were prone to illness, you would have to use some of your vacation days to cover illness for more than your allocated five days a year. But from a business overhead perspective, the firm could now have a firm estimate of the cost of employee absences in a budgeted year.

I was fortunate in my working years to be employed by a firm that provided paid leave (vacation and sick), and I'm aware that many firms, especially small ones, do not provide such benefits. But benefits of any type have a financial cost and the human nature aspect of sick leave (that if it is given, an employee is entitled to take it) makes mandatory sick leave in some respects similar to mandating that employees be given paid vacation. I'm not sure how to resolve this specific issue except by requiring that an employee get a doctor's note confirming an illness, which by itself imposes almost insurmountable obstacles for many sick individuals.

Employees have the freedom to seek work with an employer who provides benefits that they desire. Making sick leave mandatory requires that firms create employee benefits which their business model does not presently account for, and it seems to me a more appropriate decision to be made by the business rather than regulators.

William Richkus, Catonsville

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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