Determining sick time a balancing act for businesses, employees

Some public employees wind up being able to tack on vast sums at the end of their careers by cashing in unused sick time, sometimes adding the equivalent of another couple of years' salary to their parting gifts.
Some public employees wind up being able to tack on vast sums at the end of their careers by cashing in unused sick time, sometimes adding the equivalent of another couple of years' salary to their parting gifts.

Mary Jo Mutchler knows the importance of a day off from work.

The mother of two wasn’t afforded much time off while performing administrative duties part time the past six years, so she cherished the days she did have. That often meant heading to work sick and saving those days for family emergencies.

“The only time I took a sick day for myself was when I had strep throat,” said Mutchler, 45. “When you work part time, you can’t afford to call in sick, and I was always taught to try my best to get in to work. I try to only use them for my kids. When they are sick is more important than when I am sick.”

Now working full time administratively for a local school district, the Crystal Lake resident accrues more sick time – a balancing act for many residents who often put their families ahead of their own well-being.

Workers are receiving fewer sick days than they have in the past, according to data released this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Policies also differ from public and private sector businesses, making it tricky for employees contemplating how to handle those days off.

About 61 percent of employees in private industry throughout the U.S. were covered by sick plans in 2012, data show. The average person today receives eight sick days after five years compared with 13 in 1993, and 10 sick days after 20 years, down from 17 days two decades ago.

The provisions of sick-leave plans changed significantly since 1993, with employees now receiving more sick days the longer they stay with a company, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sick leave is also more prevalent with white-collar workers, such as professional and clerical occupations, than with blue-collar occupations.

The lack of sick days could be attributed to more companies moving toward a paid time off system that combines all days into one pool, said Mary Ahnen, president of the Stateline Society for Human Resource Management.

“Employees find the system easier to use and more flexible,” she said. “The benefit to the employer is that administration of combined paid days takes less time and discourages unscheduled time off.”

McHenry County Board member Michael Skala owns two businesses – a design engineering company and a hardware distribution company.

He created a sick-time policy six years ago after seeing the vast differences on how his employees used the time off. Employees are given five sick days at the start each year and also accrue vacation time.

Vacation days carry over for one year, and can be used as sick days if those days have run out, Skala said. Workers who leave “cannot take those days with them.”

“I try to be responsive because some employees have children or elderly parents, and naturally sometimes they aren’t sick but they have to attend to family needs,” Skala said. “When they know they are taking vacation time, I don’t want them calling the day of, but if there is a circumstance with family, that’s a different story.”

Those working under the hood of the McHenry County Government Center can accrue sick leave for personal illness, injury or disability, and to care of an ill or disabled immediate family member, according to county policy. In most cases, the time must be approved ahead of time or with as much notice as possible.

The county accrual process differs from the numbers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, with workers getting 12 sick days per year through 10 years of service, 15 days from the 11th year through 15th year, and 20 days from the 16th year on.

An employee is allowed to accrue up to a maximum of 240 days.

Many employers, including those a part of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, such as teachers and law enforcement officials, can stockpile a certain amount of sick time toward retirement.

“Sick time is worth something when you leave or retire,” County Administrator Pete Austin said. “Different organizations handle it differently, but you can tack it onto your pension. It’s an incentive not to misuse it and to only use it when you really need it.”

Sick leave in the city of Crystal Lake is also for those ill, disabled or injured, according to policy. It also includes appointments that can’t be scheduled during nonworking hours as well as for care of immediate family members or the birth or adoption of a child.

Employees accumulate up to 12 sick days a year, at a maximum of 240 days.

The city also could request a statement from a licensed health care provider or require the employee to be examined by a city-appointed health care provider depending on the amount of time taken off consecutively or cumulatively in a year.

A similar policy is used in Huntley.

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