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Friday, March 28, 2008

Should you really be sick to claim a sick day?

By Dick Hirsch

There are a considerable number of sick people around who just don’t feel right about taking a sick day. Have you noticed? They’re especially visible at this time of the year, during the cold and flu season.

Often they can be heard coughing, hacking away, or else sneezing in cycles that can sometimes total as many as a dozen or so sneezes in a harrowing sequence, interrupted by a second or two of repose. Their co-workers try their best to ostracize them, to keep their distance and increase the number of daily hand washings. But these people have their reasons; they would prefer to drag themselves to the workplace where they can find diversion in labor, rather than medicate and rest, while contending with boredom at home and worrying they may be missing something at work.

“I always feel worse when I stay home,” several people have told me, and that is a common explanation used by people in that group.

On the other side of the ledger we find the opposite personalities; there we find the perfectly well people who feel it is absolutely permissible to pretend to be sick and take days off from work.

These are workers who feel they are entitled to claim sickness in order to have a day off of their choosing. In some venues, there are many such claims on the opening days of a particular season, say deer, trout or baseball. Others claim a summer day when the sky is cloudless and the beach is an enticing attraction. They believe they are entitled to use their apportioned number of sick days as a day off from work, no matter how healthy they may be.

I realize there are many people reading this who have adopted that approach and may condemn me for focusing on that kind of behavior, but I will make no apology. I have always found that attitude to be repugnant and on the verge of larcenous. A sick day is a welcome fringe benefit. I’ve always believed such days would been given a different title---maybe something like ”day off of my choosing”---if they were intended for random use.

Knowing that unexpected days off can foul up work schedules, many sick day claimers will actually give advance notice, for example, telling their supervisor they intend to take a sick day a week from Tuesday. Is that considerate?

We live in the fitness age, with people concerned and assertive about maintaining good health. They alter and monitor their diets, trying to reject unhealthy foods, and they exercise, trying their best to stay well and live a more active, productive life. Despite those health-related efforts, many still are determined to use all their sick days. Am I the only one who sees that as ironic?

Some people don’t use their sick days. They hoard them, not because they expect serious illness, but because they want to cash them in when they leave their job. That is an especially common practice among public employees, another of the traditions which seem scandalous when cities, towns and counties are faced with chronic fiscal problems.

Every now and then, a story is published about somebody walking away from a high profile public job with a pocketful of money received from trading accumulated sick days for cash. It’s worth a story for a day or two, with statements of outrage from certain commentators, but then it is forgotten. The most recent case involved the departure of Edward J. Kasprzak, who retired last year from a top job at the Erie County Water Authority with the cash equivalent of 130 days of sick leave and 52 days of unused vacation time. Kasprzak was earning over $135,000 from the authority, which had contracted to pay him a year’s severance whenever he left. That, combined with the payment for the unused days, meant that he received $230,000 when he said goodbye to the Erie County Water Authority. It’s old news by this time and forgotten by all but the most dedicated critics of local government operations, but I just thought it deserved mention in any discussion of people collecting sick pay when they are well.

The sick people who would rather work than collect don’t deserve any testimonials, either. Just the other day I spent most of the afternoon backpedaling, trying to stay out of range of a coughing, sniffling specimen.

Yes, it is an imperfect world.



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