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Taking Sick Days

Natalia J. Garland

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Are sick days an employment benefit or an entitlement? If we define sick days, then that will help to clarify the answer. The purpose of sick days is to enable the employee to maintain a regular paycheck when too ill to report for work. If we accept this definition, then it would be dishonest to use sick days for other purposes such as going shopping or catching up on laundry.

We cannot help getting sick. The workplace itself has germs. Most of us are going to need to use some of our allotted sick days. Some employees will use more than others. If you undergo surgery, you might use all your sick days and then have to tap into your vacation days or take time off without pay. Some employers will allow employees to use sick days to take care of a sick child.

It seems there are very few people who never take a sick day. Why is this? Some people have excellent health and good resistance to germs. There are probably other reasons, too. There are workaholics, and employees with co-dependent tendencies. Perfect attendance is rewarded on some jobs. If you value having another certificate to hang on your wall, or if you want extra points to put on your resumé, then striving for perfect attendance makes sense.

What happens when employees come to work sick? They spread germs and then everybody gets sick. In social service agencies, therapists can feel obligated to drag themselves to work when sick. This is because their patients and colleagues need them to be there. It is not like the teaching profession. Teachers can draw from a workforce of substitute teachers to cover their classes. Therapists, however, generally have to burden colleagues to cover their caseload. The only other alternative is to cancel appointments. One or two cancelled appointments may be tolerable for high-functioning patients, but therapists working in agencies with a severe population will probably need to find coverage.

In addition to sick days, most employers also provide vacation days, personal days, and the federal holidays. How do these differ from sick days? Taking a sick day must be justified by illness. Taking vacation days or personal days is a decision, and federal holidays are automatic. Perhaps this is why some employees regard sick days as an entitlement. Sick days are looked upon as earned time to be used in the same manner as vacation days.

This view is also possibly acquired in college. If I remember correctly, when I was in college we were permitted four cut days per class each semester. There was no such thing as a sick day. It was called a cut day and students could use these days for any purpose and not be penalized. There were some professors who did not even care if students attended class, so long as the exams were passed and the term-papers completed. In some instances, you could actually get an A-grade without ever having attended class.

Yes, I usually took my four cut days. No, I was not always sick. I used those days to study for exams in other classes, do research in the library, and catch up on laundry. The concept of perfect attendance, so highly regarded in the lower grades, carried no value other than to be in class to listen to the lecture and take notes. College students were expected to be mature enough to want an education and to manage their time wisely.

If an employer, however, makes a distinction between a sick day and a vacation day, and if you have agreed to follow the rules of the agency for which you work, then sick days are to be used only when you are sick and unable to report for work. If you have grievances against your employer, you will achieve only a temporary feeling of restitution by taking sick days without justification. When you return to work, the same problems will still be there.

My good reputation is important to me. When I call in sick, I am really in bed sick. I want to be able to look my employer in the eye when I return to work, knowing that I have not betrayed my professionalism. If some of my sick days go unused, then that's just the way it is.

What would be another method for providing employee benefits? Lump everything together. Put all the sick days, vacation days, and personal days into one category. Let's call it earned leave. Employees would accrue days off annually as usual, but it would all go into an earned leave account. Employees could make withdrawals from their account for any purpose, much in the manner of my old college cut days. Employees would have to budget their earned leave, saving some of it to allow for unexpected illness. Employees who emptied their entire account would have to wait until they earned more time before taking the next day off.

The earned leave method would permit healthy employees to take advantage of heretofore inaccessible sick days. Since all their days off would be lumped together, it would afford them some added days for vacations or other purposes. Employees who lie about being ill, would no longer have a system that is open to abuse.

Some employees would have difficulty adjusting to the earned leave method. If it became a standard, however, employees would learn that budgeting time is similar to budgeting their paycheck. You have to pay the bills first, and then decide what to do with the remainder of your money. Putting some of it in savings is a good idea. The same holds true with earned leave accounts. Saving some time for emergencies is a good idea. Having more time for personal use would make life more enjoyable. (Written 10/02/06)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland