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Use caution when managing your sick leave policy

When Saskatchewan’s Cypress Health Region updated its sick-leave procedures, it thought it would be making it easier and safer for employees to return to work after an illness. In practice, things played out very differently. By requiring excessively detailed doctors’ reports, mandating manager intervention in all sick-leave cases, delaying employees’ pay for sick days, and pushing employees to return to work before they were ready, numerous employees found the new system onerous, invasive, stressful and even humiliating.

In 2010, Saskatchewan’s health ministry sought to reduce costs and asked its health service providers to find ways to lower overtime hours, sick-time hours and workers’ compensation claims. The Cypress Health Region responded with a “significantly different process” to deal with employee sick leave, without actually updating the policy, which would have required input from the union. The new procedure was as follows:

  • Employee reports absence
  • Manager is informed
  • Manager contacts employee
  • Manager contacts scheduling department regarding leave of absence payroll coding; copies ability management department
  • Employee returns to work next shift
  • Manager meets with employee as required
  • If required, manager requests medical restrictions form or behavioural form or return-to-work plan developed based on restrictions form

There were problems from the start.

The main problem was that when an employee took sick leave, a payroll code of “pending” would be applied until the employee’s manager confirmed the sickness claim. As a result:

Even if it was [eventually] coded as sick leave, which it would be in the vast majority of cases, no pay for that shift or shifts would be processed until the ‘pending’ code was changed. The evidence of several of the witnesses was that payment was delayed until a subsequent pay period and at least in one case it was delayed for several months. (Emphasis added.)

Another substantial problem was the employer’s “aggressive pursuit of more medical information”:

In some cases multiple requests were made for additional information causing an employee to revisit a doctor several times or obtain medical information from more than one medical care provider. All of the witnesses who testified about their personal experiences found them to be frustrating at the very least and, in some cases, humiliating and perhaps going beyond the bounds of seeking acceptable medical information into areas of personal privacy.

Then there was the question of returning to work:

Many of the witnesses testified that they felt pressured…to return to work even though they, and sometimes their doctor, did not feel it was appropriate for them to do so. The ‘next day’ return-to-work philosophy…together with the practice of a non-payment code, caused several of the witnesses to testify that they felt if they did not return to work as soon as possible they would not get sick-leave pay and would be impacted by the financial consequences of the non-payment.

The union complained that parts of the new sick-leave procedure conflicted with the collective agreement and that the employer administered the procedure in an unreasonable manner. The labour arbitration board agreed, noting:

While it is well beyond the mandate of this Board of Arbitration to infringe on the Employer’s ability to organize its workplace, a revisit of the administration of the sick leave…program may be warranted to avoid future conflict.

The board ordered certain significant modifications to the employer’s sick-leave procedures:

  • Requiring managers to follow up with employees regarding every sick-leave request was unreasonable. “The arbitral authorities make clear that seeking medical information, whether it is a doctor’s certificate or more information from an employee, must be determined on an individual case-by-case basis.…Similarly, if an employee’s manager knows, without a follow-up call to the employee, that a sick leave is justified, there should not be a blanket policy requiring such a call.”
  • The “next-day” return-to-work principle was ambiguous at best and false at worst. “Clearly, if it was interpreted and applied literally, it would be quite unreasonable….the sentence should be removed because it is unreasonable, or ambiguous, or does not reflect actual employer policy and practice.”
  • It was an unreasonable practice to mark sick-leave days as “pending” until a sickness was confirmed. “The entitlement to sick-leave benefits is a negotiated right under the collective agreement…Thus, while there is no absolute entitlement to sick leave and there is an obligation on an employee to justify sick leave, it must not be unreasonably withheld.”
  • While it is acceptable for management to have a one-on-one discussion with an employee regarding returning to work and possible accommodations without a union representative present, such a conversation becomes more formal when it involves more management personnel, and a union rep should be involved.

While the aims of this procedural change were reasonable and laudable (besides being mandated by the province), the Cypress Health Region clearly failed to consider the possible effects the changes would have on employees.

Employers should always consider the effects of their policies and procedures on employees (and unions if present) before implementing them. Ideally, the process of developing policies and procedures that affect employees should actually involve employee representatives in order to avoid precisely this type of scenario.

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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