When does sick leave become sick leave abuse?


Retired federal employee James Stephens writes in a new op-ed piece on FederalTimes.com that managers should forget about trying to define and respond to sick leave abuse:

I did not abuse sick leave …  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.

He explains:

The problem is that managers pretend that the problem is employees who abuse something that isn’t theirs.  …  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.

Here’s what he proposes:

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.

Would this really make for a healthier, more productive work environment? Do feds really need more annual leave, as he suggests? I think most private-sector employees would argue that feds already have more annual leave than most people. Join our forum to tell us what you think.


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  1. When you say more than most private-sector folks who specifically are you comparing that to? Part-timers usually have no sick leave and that is what a lot of employees in this country are becoming.
    Compared to most European countries we are overworked over here. They have more “holidays” and leave time. You need to compare the overall retention, productivity, efficiency, and total health costs of one organization (public and private) with a minimal leave program with one that has a generous leave program.
    Federal public sector annual leave is based on years of service, therefore higher leave balances are acquired through prolonged retention. Would an employer prefer excessive attrition/turnover rates and the subsequent costs over higher leave balances for senior employees? I don’t think so.

  2. Since Federal employees have no short-term disability insurance or maternity leave, a large sick leave balance is necessary. After a few years, a Federal employee should have a few hundred hours in case of a car accident, sudden illness or other unexpected incapacitation that would require a month of recovery. Women planning a family should also be storing up sick leave. No one likes getting “leave donation” requests from an expecting mother just back from a last chance vacation.

    That said, if you are nearing retirement and have huge balances, why wouldn’t you take more time off? Your chances of needing it are low, you are probably tired of the daily grind any way. The government gives you a disincentive to not use sick leave late in your career.

    As they say in Freakonomics, it’s all about the incentives.

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