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Hospital worker sick leave: too much or too little?

Ontario hospital workers are much less absent due to illness or disability than hospital workers Canada-wide.  In 2014, Ontario hospital workers were absent 10.2 days due to illness or disability, 2.9 days less than the Canada wide average – i.e. 22% less.  In fact, Ontario hospital workers have had consistently fewer sick days for years.

This is also true if absences due to family or personal responsibilities are included.

Statistics Canada data for the last fifteen years for Canada and Ontario are reported in the chart below, showing Ontario hospital workers are consistently off work less.

Assuming, Ontario accounts for about 38% of the Canada-wide hospital workforce, these figures suggest that the days lost due to illness of injury in Canada excluding Ontario are about 13.6 days per year ([13.6 x 0.68] + [10.2 x 0.38] = 13.1).

In other words, hospital workers in the rest of Canada are absent from work due to illness or disability 1/3 more than Ontario hospital workers. 

In fact, Canadian public sector workers and Canadian unionized workers are off sick about one quarter more than Ontario hospital workers (see chart below for absences for Canadian public sector and unionized workers). 

Obviously, hospital workers should not be working with sick patients if they themselves are sick. The much lower absence from work in Ontario hospitals raises some questions if the crack downs on sick leave by Ontario hospitals have gone too far.

Absences due to workplace injuries

Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) provides data on Schedule 1 employers (i.e. those that are insured through WSIB and are not self-insured). Covered hospital employees have increased over the last 12 reported years, increasing from 176,000 to 205,000 covered employees (a 16.5% increase).

Over that time, despite the significant increase in covered employment, the number of allowed lost time claims has decreased from 3,379 in 2002 to 2,145 in 2013 ― that is a 37% drop. The decline in the number of allowed lost time claims began in about 2010 and has accelerated since then.

Interestingly, the lost time injury rates have declined for all industries over this period ― even more sharply. Hospital workers have gone from a little under the all-industry average to somewhat over the all-industry average. Notably, the injury rate in nursing homes is much higher, although it too is declining.

Hospitals have declined from a rate of 1.92 to a rate of 1.05, while all industries have declined from 2.10 to 0.95.
  In other words, hospitals had an injury rate that was 91.4% of all industries, and they now have an injury rate of 110.5% of the all industries rate.  

Meanwhile, workers in long term care facilities in Ontario have a sky high lost time injury rate - more than double the hospital rate and almost two and a half times the all industry rate.  Long Term Care workers and community members have been campaigning for years for more staffing time ("Time to Care"). Almost certainly, the hectic rush of long term care work contributes significantly to the very high lost time injury rate in that industry.  

Public sector and private sector absences 

Occasionally, public sector workers, like hospital employees, are attacked for the amount of absences relative to private sector workers.  A recent Statistics Canada report (“Understanding public–private sector differences in work absences”) reviews public sector ― private sector differences in leave due to illness, disability, or family and personal responsibilities, and sheds some light on these claims.

The report concludes that absences from work have remained ‘relatively stable in recent years’.
Average days lost per worker per year across several characteristics, 1997, 2011 and 2012

Both sexes
Age group

15 to 19
20 to 24
25 to 34
35 to 44
45 to 54
55 to 64
65 and over
Note F:
Union coverage

Union member or covered by collective agreement

Note F:  too unreliable to be published
Note:  Other personal and job characteristics are available in CANSIM tables 279-0029 to 279-0039Source:  Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, 1997, 2011 and 2012.

The Statistics Canada study does note that there is a significant difference between public sector and private sector absences from work.  In 2012, full-time workers in the private sector took 8.3 days off on average (6.7 for illness or disability plus 1.5 for personal or family responsibilities).  In contrast, full-time workers in the public sector took 12.4 days (10.5 days for illness or disability and 2.0 days for personal or family responsibilities).

However, the Statistics Canada report found that this was largely due to differences in the unionization, age, and gender of public sector and private sector workers.

Women workers, older workers, and unionized workers tend to have more absences (see chart on left) and women workers, older workers, and especially unionized workers are more commonly found in the public sector than the private sector.  (The study suggests that women have more absences as they have more family responsibilities and that older workers have more illness.  Presumably unionized workers have more absences because they are much more highly unionized and have bargained superior sick and family leave provisions.) 

Unionization alone accounts for over half (55%) of the difference in absence from work between the private sector and the public sector.  Indeed, unionized workers as a whole had more days absent in 2012 than public sector workers.

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