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Epidemic of sick days amongst government employees

September 05, 2019
Epidemic of sick days amongst government employees

This column was published in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal on September 5, 2019.

If you don’t work for the government, the discrepancy between the number of sick days taken by government employees and workers outside of government may make you queasy.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation released its annual Labour Day Reality Check report and found that in Canada, government employees in 2018 were absent 77 per cent more often than workers outside of government due to illness or disability, according to Statistics Canada numbers.

Government employees are missing more than a week of work beyond that of non-government workers, taking an average of 12.2 sick days in 2018 versus 6.9 sick days taken by the average non-government worker.

This serious case of bureaucratitis seems only to be worsening year after year. The number of sick days taken by government employees in Canada has increased every year for the past five years. We may have an epidemic on our hands.

This malaise is present at every level of government – federal, provincial and local – at which government employees took more sick days than workers elsewhere in the economy.

The CTF report details the numbers for every level of government, and the trend holds true for New Brunswick. In 2018, government employees in the province took 26 per cent more sick days off work than workers outside of government. Here, government employees took an average of 9.6 sick days off that year, missing nearly two full weeks of work. 

The discrepancy between government employees and other workers represents a significant total cost to taxpayers, in lost dollars and lost productivity. If government employees missed less time, that workforce could be leaner and more efficient, costing taxpayers less.

Perhaps care packages of chicken soup and daytime television game shows are what’s needed to help government employees recuperate faster. Reminders to wash your hands frequently and eat a balanced diet may help keep bureaucrats from calling in sick. 

Or perhaps what’s needed is for this Labour Day Reality Check to be a wake-up call. Taking extra sick time shouldn’t just be part of the benefits of being a government employee in New Brunswick or at any level of government in Canada, while those who pay these employees’ salaries don’t spend as much time missing work. 

Government employees in Canada are already compensated more generously than equivalent workers elsewhere in the economy. In 2015, the Fraser Institute found that, after controlling for factors such as age, gender, marital status, education, tenure, size of firm, province, city, type of job, industry and occupation, government employees in Canada from all three levels of government were paid a 9.7 per cent wage premium over their counterparts.

Additionally, the Institute found that 87.8 per cent of government employees were covered by a registered pension plan (the vast majority of those being gold-plated defined-benefit pensions), compared to only 23.9 per cent of non-government workers. Government employees retire earlier, enjoy more job security and take more time off for personal reasons than other comparable workers.

In short, being a government employee in New Brunswick and across Canada is a plum position and the expensive discrepancy should be wide open to criticism. Taxpayers work hard to earn the money they need to cover ever-increasing tax bills. And taxpayers deserve to know that government workers are working hard to deliver value for that money in return.

Paige MacPherson is the Atlantic Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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