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Need a sick day? For credit union, it's in the bank

published November 20, 2006

Michael Kinsman
( 3 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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"We knew that things come up in life that are hard to explain to an employer," says Janet Madden, senior vice president of human resources for the San Diego credit union. "We know that life makes demands on people's time, and they needed to take time off to take care of them."

The credit union also knew that employees called in sick when they really weren't.

Mission Federal decided to lump vacation days, sick days and personal days together into one package in 1999, allowing its 425 employees to take that time off when they wanted.

"We didn't want to police them," Madden says. "We wanted to treat them like adults. If they need time off, they take it. It doesn't matter what they need the time for."

Employers nationwide wrestle with the use of employee sick days. CCH, an Illinois-based human resources consulting firm, reported recently that a survey of 326 companies found that 35 percent of sick days claimed this year are for personal illness.

Workers are taking most sick days for family issues, personal needs, stress, and because they feel they deserve them, according to CCH.

And those reasons are adding up. CCH said that as recently as a decade ago, 45 percent of sick days were used for personal illness.

"We've found that when an employer doesn't have a flexible work arrangement, that puts pressure on their employees," said Pam Wolf, an employment law analyst for CCH. "Employees feel they are forced to use a sick day to deal with real life."

It found that one-third of employers think the misuse of sick time is a serious problem, and 92 percent expect the problem to worsen over the next two years.

CCH reported that the most effective way of dealing with unscheduled absences is to provide a range of work/life benefits that offer flexibility and assistance to workers as they try to deal with personal matters.

The consulting firm found that paid time-off banks - such as the one offered at Mission Federal - are the best way to deal with sick-time abuses.

"The frustrating thing is that while it is the most effective tool for employers, it is one of the least-used tools," Wolf said.

Estimates of how widespread paid time-off banks are vary dramatically.

CCH reports that 70 percent of companies offer them to employees. Mercer Human Resources Consulting says that about 33 percent of large and midsized companies offer them, while the Society for Human Resources Management reports that more than two-thirds of all companies offer them.

Yet, CCH reports that 97 percent of employers try to control sick time through disciplinary action, 82 percent include a review of sick time in their annual reviews, and 79 percent require a physician's verification.

Workers at Mission Federal are granted between 18 and 28 days annually in their time-off banks. They get an additional 12 bank holidays as well.

"From an administrative perspective, it makes our lives easier, and the employees like that they can use the time when they need it," Madden says. "We do ask that employees get advance approval to take time off, except those days when they wake up sick. But it has really been very effective here."

Time-off banks also address an underlying issue of sick time abuse: the relationship of workers and their bosses.

A worker who is forced to lie about being sick to accommodate a personal need isn't doing much to foster a healthy relationship with a supervisor. Lying by either party isn't conducive to a healthy relationship.

Madden understands that clearly.

"Why would you want to build a system that forces people to lie just because they need time in their personal lives?" she asks. "It makes no sense. You're creating trouble when you don't have to."

When only one in three employees taking sick time is truly ill, creating a system with more time-off flexibility just seems like a sensible solution.

© Copley News Service

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