The Inside Agenda Blog

Teachers' Agenda: An Exercise in Fact Checking -- Sick Days

by Meredith Martin Friday February 8, 2013

(Update: scroll down for a response to this post from ETFO)

On Tuesday, January 29, The Agenda aired a program called The Teachers' Agenda. A few things came up during the discussion that needed more context than we were able to provide at the time, so I'm writing a series of posts that each fact-check one issue. This is the third post -- written with the invaluable help of our student intern Taryn Mackenzie-Mohr -- and it's about teachers' sick days.

If you missed them, the first post was about the lawyers present at the first meeting between the teachers' unions and the Ministry of Education, and if they were, in fact, bankruptcy lawyers. The second post was about the role the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection played in the passing of Bill 115.

Sick Days:

Before the introduction of Bill 115, Ontario teachers were allowed to take 20 sick days a year. Up to 200 unused days could accumulate in a "sick bank" and those days were paid out upon retirement.  Since we began following the labour dispute between the province and the teachers’ unions, several issues related to this policy have emerged as points of contention.    

First, a number of competing claims related to the nature and purpose of the former Ontario teachers’ sick-leave policy have been made. 

On March 12th, 2012, The Agenda aired a program called Austerity and Ontario's Teachers, in which Martin Regg Cohn of the Toronto Star described the sick bank as a form of "deferred compensation" that "goes back to the 1950s and 1960s … when school boards negotiated this as a perk." During that same panel, Doug Little, a former Toronto District School Board trustee, suggested that the program was originally meant to cut down on absenteeism. In the above clip, elementary school teacher Kathreen Hansen referred to the policy as a “short-term, sick-leave plan.”  

So what was the purpose of the sick-leave policy?

According to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), sick days were originally introduced in the 1930s in part to encourage sick teachers to stay at home so that they wouldn't expose students to illness. 

I find this interesting because it seems the opposite of what Little said in the above clip. He seems to be under the impression that the ability to bank sick days was established to encourage teachers not to miss work.  

Whatever the original rationale, there are concerns that the end of banked sick leave will increase teacher absenteeism. Hansen confirms this concern, when near the end of the clip she says a number of teachers are now thinking of taking all their sick days per year regardless.

Consider absenteeism among Toronto's municipal workers, as reported by Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star's urban affairs reporter, in December: 

Toronto’s city workers took more sick days last year than they did during the era of the controversial “sick bank” program, figures obtained via freedom of information show.

Employees of the municipal government took an average of 7.9 sick days in 2007; 8 sick days in 2008, and 7.8 sick days in 2009. The number jumped to 10.4 sick days in 2010, when the city began to replace the sick bank with a new program and stayed at 10.4 days in 2011.

The 10.4-day average was lower than the national public sector average of 10.9 days. To the chagrin of Mayor Rob Ford's administration, which has emphasized the need for efficiency in government, it was also higher than the national private sector average of 6.7 days.

Looking forward, if what happened with municipal employees happens with teachers, the average number of sick days for teachers will increase from six to 10 or 11. The question then becomes: does it cost more to pay teachers an extra four days of sick pay a year (plus the supply teacher who's brought in to replace them) than the average sick bank buy-out upon retirement every year? The answer seems to be: only time will tell. 

That being said, we do know that the average teacher in Ontario receives approximately $46,000 at retirement as a result of the sick-bank policy, and according to Education Minister Laurel Broten, the cancellation of accumulated sick days will save the province $137 million next year. And, while I'd like to answer the question that Adrian Goodman posed in the above clip about how just how many Ontario teachers there really are that have the maximum number of days and are close to retirement, I unfortunately can't. I can only let you all know what the Ministry of Education said in an email answer to our query:

On average teachers banked 10 days per year so a teacher would have banked 100 days over 10-year period. Most teachers would have banked their maximum days upon retirement where retirement gratuities plans based on accumulated sick days were provided.

Many people seem confused as to what happens now, post-Bill 115, with sick leave. In the above clip, the impression one gets is that the time teachers accumulated in their sick bank was confiscated by the government. According to the government, however, that's not the case. Here's what the Ministry of Education sent us in an email (emphasis mine):

The Putting Students First Act eliminates the accumulation of sick days under the old sick day plan. The sick days accumulated up to August 31, 2012 for purposes of a retirement gratuity payout have been frozen and will be paid out upon retirement bases [sic] on the salary in effect as of August 31, 2012 and all remaining sick days have been limited and can no longer be used for sick leave purposes. The old sick-day plan has been replaced with a new sick leave and short-term disability plant [sic] whereby an employee is given 11 sick days per year paid at 100 per cent salary plus an additional 120 sick days paid at 90 per cent or 66.6 per cent, depending on adjudication. Any of the unused sick days paid at 100 per cent salary may be carried forward into the following year to top-up to 100 per cent pay the sick days that would otherwise have been paid at 90 per cent.

(I e-mailed the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario [ETFO] with this information to get its reaction. At the time of publication, a representative of ETFO had not yet gotten back to me.)

So what does this all mean?

First of all, it means that if teachers get a serious illness and need to be away for a significant amount of time, they will still get paid. Not always at 100 per cent salary, as they did in the past if they used banked sick days. But they won't be completely out of luck if they got seriously ill and had no banked sick days, which was the case in the past, especially for new teachers who got sick and had not yet had the chance to accumulate a significant sick day bank. From this point forward, all teachers will get the same kind of short-term and long-term disability benefits that are prevalent in many public and private-sector workplaces. 

It also means that teachers with 10 or more years of service prior to the change get to keep all their banked sick days and cash them out at retirement. That's good news for Kathreen Hansen, who on our program complained that the government had taken something that belonged to her when they took away her banked sick days. Having 12 years of service teaching, it turns out she still has them. 

Finally, there is still some incentive for teachers to not use all of their sick days in one year, because they can carry them forward to top up their coverage the following year in the event they are sick for an extended time. Again, we'll have to see if that is in fact how it plays out.

I do find it strange all of the teachers at our round table seemed not to understand that the government was essentailly grandfathering the sick bank payout upon retirement for many teachers. I also think it's strange that they would seem to think the province would just leave them in the lurch in terms of short-term disability. It either shows a colossal failure of communication on behalf of the government or on behalf of the union to its members. It certainly illustrates that the level of distrust of teachers with the goverment is extremely high, which is just very, very sad.

Update: Valerie Dugale of ETFO has since responded to my inquiry about the ministry's e-mail. 

The union wanted to underline the fact that teachers need to reach a threshold of having worked for a particular board for up to ten years before being paid out upon retirement. ETFO goes on to say that teachers "who do not qualify according to CA (collective agreement) provisions are paid for unused sick days by the end of this school year. What they get would amount to a maximum of 10 per cent of the value of the sick days, or no more than one third of one month's salary.”
This squares with what was written earlier in the sense that it confirms 10 years seniority is required for the gratuity pay out. But it also adds additional details in terms of what happens to people who do not hit the 10 year threshold. Our read of the ETFO e-mail indicates that those below the 10 year mark will still receive some compensation for their unused sick days -- though it will be a fraction of what they could have expected previously. ETFO is obviously unhappy about this and about the fact that those teachers will not get any gratuity payout upon retirement.
The cup-is-half-full interpretation: all teachers will receive at least some compensation for their unused sick days. The cup-is-half-empty interpretation: many teachers will not receive the retirement gratuity that they had been told to expect due to previous collective agreements. 
It's interesting that ETFO did not make mention of a point a number of teachers & teacher supporters have tried to make to us via the comments section below and Twitter: That not all school boards had a pay out of sick days at retirement: apparently 60 per cent did not. That could be perhaps because the majority of those boards not paying out a gratuity were Catholic boards, which neither ETFO nor its high school counterpart, OSSTF, represent. We'll have to try to clarify this. (While we would like to follow up on some of these questions before publishing, we figure it was important to get a union response up as quickly as possible). 

ETFO also wanted to respond to the government's claims about the new sick day plan. Specifically, it wanted to address the statement that teachers could carry over their unused sick days to top up their pay if they were on extended leave. "This applies for the 2013-2014 year only," ETFO's Dugale wrote. "We do not know if it applies to future years since the regulations are unclear. For the 2012-2013 year, teachers may carry forward only two days (if they have sick days in their bank -- otherwise, no carry over days will be provided.)"

Dugale also stated that ETFO disputes the government's contention that the average pay out for sick days at retirement has been $46,000.

We appreciate both ETFO and the government clarifying their positions with us. What's obvious is the impression many have that all banked sick days have been completely taken away, period, is not accurate. It's more complicated than that. That being said, a great deal of what many teachers expected before Bill 115 has been taken away. Plus many of the details of what has replaced the old sick days system still remain unclear to many teachers, and leave them with questions as to exactly what they are owed and what happens when they get sick. And the fact that these changes were made without what teachers consider to be a fair bargaining process remain a top-of-mind issue for them. 

(Update co-authored by Meredith Martin and Daniel Kitts.)