Sick Leave Stats and CFIB Nonsense

The CFIB have released their annual report that attacks the public sector's higher reported sick days (when compared to the private sector). The analysis they put forward is bogus and their recommendations essentially amount to an attack on women and health care workers. If their recommendations were adopted it would be disastrous for public health and safety.

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The CFIB is not known for reasoned, compelling or thoughtful analysis in public policy debates. However, for whatever reason, be it the private media monopoly or their own members deep pockets, they get media coverage of their reports/PR stunts.

This is less of a response to CFIB and more just some details that undermine the basic premise of the CFIB’s analysis. I have been poking around the sick leave statistics a bit and I think that there is a gender-based analysis that should be brought into the discussion as well as some comments on heath care and trades.

Health Care and Trades Workers

Before we get to the gender-based analysis, we need to quickly look at health care and the trades.

The attached graph shows that there may be a rather large effect of health care on sick leave stats for the public sector. Health care workers are constantly in contact with sick people, so it comes to reason that they will be taking the most sick leave (and the stats show this very clearly). Health care workers in Canada, thanks to public health care, are overwhelmingly prevalent in the public sector. So, it is not so much a union/non-union or private/public that is where the differences are. It is the health sector versus everything else. When you take health care workers out of the public-versus-private analysis the difference drops.

Also up there in leave are the trades, which is not surprising when you think about dangerous work in sub-optimal environments. This will push up the days lost in the union sector (and the public sector where there are many trades workers in the municipal and federal sectors).

Effects of Gender

Now for the gender-based analysis. There is also a huge difference between men and women in days lost across all industries, but particularly for front-line workers. Women are more likely to be doing the work that brings them into contact with people. Women are more likely to be looking after sick children and their parents. Women make up a larger proportion of the public service when compared to the private sector. All together, this pushes up the numbers significantly for the days lost in the public service.

Unionized and public sector employees are going to be able to access sick leave in their collective agreements where as self-employed, part-time and shift workers are going to access the public support (like EI or welfare).


For the CFIB report, days lost includes disability. If the CFIB were serious in their suggestion that workers are abusing sick leave, then they would distinguish between sick days and disability. Disability (short and long-term) is not skipping a day here and there because you do not feel well, it is much more serious and an important feature of any workplace. Either way, there is no evidence that there is mass abuse of either system.

In Summary

The long and the short of it is that people get sick and the CFIB’s numbers do not tell the whole story and the story that they do tell is mostly a fairy-tale.

People get sick, but women deal with sick people and are sick themselves more. Women take over 50% more sick days than men across all industries (public, private sectors, union and non-union), increasing in places where there is more sick leave available.

It is true that unionized environments let people who are sick take time off, and this is a good thing. However, beyond the union protection, some of the discrepancy between public and private sector employees is explained by:

  1. A greater proportion of women in the public sector, especially federal and provincial administration and front-line work.

  2. Public sector includes health care workers.

  3. PT and shift workers in the private services sectors do not take sick days, they move shifts.

  4. We pay for sick days one way or another. Either people take the sick day, or they leave work and take EI or welfare when they do not qualify for EI.

Bottom line: everyone gets sick. It is better for you and cheaper for everyone else if you join a union – especially if you are a woman.

A Comment on Costs

The CFIB tally up some rather inflated $3.5B cost to “the taxpayer” for public sick days. They have likely made a mistake in this statistic as they seem to think that federal government workers bank their sick days but, in reality, they do not. However, for those that do not have long-term or short-term disability in their contract, it is likely provincial income support will pick up some of the slack for those that do get sick.

In addition, the EI system is harder to access for PT workers (need 600 hrs of work in last year) making the EI sickness benefits out of reach for many. Part time workers in retail are forced to work while sick, pass shifts off to others or change shifts than full time workers.

Bottom line is that we are paying for the cost of sickness somewhere; either through EI premiums, provincial taxes, or in lost work time from spread sicknesses because retail workers are financially forced to work when sick.



Relevant Stats

(Extracted from StatsCan Document on leave 2001):

Workers with permanent jobs (more likely to be unionized) lost more work days (9.6) than those whose jobs were not permanent (7.0).

Days lost tended to rise with job tenure, with almost all of the differences arising from illness and disability. Employees with tenure of up to 1 year lost 6.2 days, while those with over 14 years lost 11.7 days (the latter group was also likely older).