INTERIOR minister Socratis Hasikos last week complained about the abuse of sick leave in the public sector. He had been visiting the departments and services under his ministry to identify the weaknesses that prevented the provision of a prompt and efficient service to citizens and realised that one of them was the frequent absence of civil servants, claiming they were sick.
The abuse of sick leave was “a scourge that affected the entire public service,” said Hasikos adding that the government should take “drastic measures against employees constantly claiming illness and being absent from their work.” His observations could not have come as a surprise to anyone as this scourge has afflicted the state sector ever since it was established, the taking of sick leave having become another “workers’ conquest”. Only a few months ago, there was a press report pointing out that a very large number of public employees take their full sick leave entitlement.
Yesterday the Medical Association (PIS), which represents all doctors, urged the authorities to refer suspicious cases to it for investigation. It also bemoaned the lack of co-operation from the ministries and government departments which declined to refer any cases to the association because of personal data issues (it is astonishing how the protection of personal data is used to protect all sorts of dishonesty).
The offer of help from the Medical Association is strange considering it is its members that happily sign sick leave certificates, often giving many more days than are necessary. At state primary schools for instance, female teachers are known to be given sick leave by doctors for their entire pregnancy. State hospital doctors feel they are showing solidarity with a fellow state sector worker by doing a favour. Some private doctors, meanwhile, also sign long sick leave so as not to lose the patient; if he or she declines the patient goes to another doctor.
It is another way that public employees cheat their employer and, ultimately, the taxpayer. If the cost of this dishonesty was calculated, we are sure it would amount to many tens of millions of euro every year. Action must be taken. Hasikos said that offenders could be punished by being transferred to offices in another town, which was ironic considering that one of the reasons for public employees taking extended sick leave is being transferred to another district.
There are much better ways than punitive transfers to tackle the scourge. First the sick leave entitlement, by which employees can stay off work without a doctor’s certificate, should be eliminated and public employees should use their holiday entitlement; second, there should be a panel of doctors who would examine all long sick leaves granted; third the Medical Association should bring doctors who give unjustifiably long sick leave before its disciplinary committee.
All this might not eradicate the scourge but it would certainly limit it. The question is would the government have the political will to implement these measures or would it retreat as soon as civil servants’ union PASYDY accuses it of attacking workers’ conquests?