Give sick leave a closer look
Are Multnomah County government workers really a sickly bunch? Or, are they perhaps the healthiest of all — with some county workers growing hardier by the day due to all the extra time they get off work? These questions arise from the latest county report detailing employee use of sick leave. As reported in Tuesday’s Portland Tribune, county employees racked up an average of 87 hours per person — more than two weeks — of paid sick leave in 2007. While that number strikes us as extraordinarily high, it actually is down 10 percent from previous years. Yet for some individual county departments, the average still is nearly 100 hours of sick leave per employee per year. We don’t know the underlying cause for the county’s elevated rate of absenteeism. But it’s obvious that this issue deserves deeper investigation. County Chairman Ted Wheeler has worked since he came into office to get a better handle on sick leave — both in the sheriff’s office, where it has been identified as a problem, and in the county departments that Wheeler directly supervises. Wheeler and other county commissioners should accelerate efforts to find out whether sick leave is being abused and quickly put in place measures that discourage employees from taking sick time when it isn’t warranted. Are taxpayers getting full value? The value of having employees show up for work is of essential importance at a time when taxpayers are being told — once again — that the county’s revenues are short of what’s needed to fund all the services it currently provides. As the county discusses budget cuts and service reductions, taxpayers should question how much more the county could accomplish if more of its employees were at work more often. The county’s elevated rate of sick leave should be especially puzzling to citizens who work in the private sector — where, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 percent of employees don’t get paid sick leave at all. (In the public sector, virtually 100 percent of employees are eligible for sick leave.) The labor bureau’s statistics also indicate that both private-sector and public-sector absenteeism nationwide is much lower, on average, than what Multnomah County government experiences. Take additional measures One question that arises when an organization has such high rates of sick leave is whether employees have a mind-set that their leave is an entitlement to be utilized in sickness and in health. Wheeler already has moved to modify the county’s sick-leave policy to make it clear that sick leave is a benefit for people dealing with illness — and not for other circumstances. He and other county officials also have begun to analyze sick-leave data more closely, looking for patterns of abuse and also for justifiable reasons that sick leave might be higher in some departments. But more needs to be done. During negotiations with its unions, the county must obtain new contract language that further clarifies appropriate use of sick leave. And employees must work toward a cultural shift in the organization to eradicate the idea that sick leave is just another name for additional vacation days. Arguing for stricter sick-leave enforcement may seem like an attack against county employees. But our intent is, in fact, the opposite. Public support for county government and its programs is dependent upon taxpayers believing that county workers are operating at maximum — and transparent and accountable — efficiency. That doesn’t require them to come to work when sick. But it does mean eliminating unnecessary absences.