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Published: Sunday, 7/21/2002

Companies find creative solutions to reduce sick days

SACRAMENTO BEE

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Sacramento businesswoman Martha Watts says she has “heard it all” when it comes to flimsy excuses for not showing up to work.

One worker had a “stubbed toe.” Another couldn't come to work because of “bloodshot eyes.”

She said that employees have had their spouses call her because her employee has been “afraid to face me.”

According to CCH, Inc., a Rosewood, Ill., company that provides employment law information for human resources professionals, unscheduled employee absenteeism costs an average of $755 per employee per year. For Ms. Watts' 30-employee All Stat Courier Service, that translates to $22,650.

And, as Ms. Watts suspects, many people who take a “sick day” may not really be “sick” at all.

Only one-third are genuinely ill, according to CCH. The rest have family issues, are stressed out or are taking care of personal needs. About 9 percent of people who are out sick just feel as if they deserve the day off, CCH said.

Heath Langle was one of them. When he was working in fast food in his early 20s, the Roseville, Calif., resident said he would call in sick just so he could go out with friends, something he would not consider doing now at his current job in a law office.

“With minimum paying jobs, the glory's not there and the money's not there,” Mr. Langle said. “When you ... don't have vacation time, and they've denied your request to take Memorial Day weekend off, you develop the flu.”

Most workers, however, deny ever having fudged on a no-show call to the office.

Linda O'Neal, a customer service representative at the California State Automobile Association, said she calls in sick only when “I'm flat on my back and I can't move.”

The same with Yolanda Williams, a sales associate at Spa and Patio Emporium in Rocklin, Calif., who can't remember the last time she missed work.

“I think it's really irresponsible,” Ms. Williams said of people who call in sick when they really aren't. Besides, Ms. Williams said, she sells on a commission. If she doesn't show up, she doesn't make money.

Some employees don't call in because they're hampered by guilt.

“I never do it. The nuns did a good job on me in grade school,” said Charlotte Broussard, an administrative analyst who works for the city of Sacramento. “I learned if you lie, God will get you.”

Most workers don't take advantage of sick leave programs, according to CCH, which said the average full-time employee is allowed 8.4 sick days a year but uses only 6.8.

Nucleus Technologies, an Arlington, Va., firm which consults companies in “absence management,” has identified the following absence trends:

wAbsences go up during periods of downsizing, productivity demands and economic downturns.

wAbsence is more prevalent among young workers than older workers.

wAbsences are higher on Mondays and Fridays.

Managers can curb unscheduled absences, but “Draconian policies” are the least effective method for doing it, said Michael Scofield, senior vice president of Nucleus Technologies.

“At the most basic, high absence rates are an organizational issue,” Mr. Scofield said. Managers need to ask: “What is it about the workplace that pushes people away?”

Often the answer lies in the company's failure to give workers a sense of their “importance and value to the organization,” he said.

Some employers have turned to absence control programs to deal with the problem of unscheduled days off.

Benefits such as flexible scheduling or paid time-off banks where employees use allotted hours for whatever purpose they want - sick days, personal time or vacation - can help reduce unscheduled days off, human-resource experts contend.

At PolyComp Administrative Services, Inc., a pension-consulting firm, flexibility and sensitivity to work/life balance has helped to reduce unplanned absences, said Evelyn Fallon, vice president of human resources.

The company has offices in three California cities - Roseville, Woodland Hills, and San Diego - and all of them are closed on Friday afternoon. Employees are encouraged to use Friday afternoons to take care of the type of personal business that often interferes with work.

The company has several programs for workers to gain that flexible time.

It offers an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift for an employee who wants to keep long weekends. Another employee works from home a couple of days a week.

“We don't want people playing games,” Ms. Fallon said, so the company allows for planned absences. Some people may feel they need a “mental health day” every quarter, or an extra day before or after a holiday, she said.



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