Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal

I’m going to start by observing that I’m not convinced that teachers’ use of sick leave is a problem. This Clotfelter et. al study observes that teachers’ absentee rate in and of itself is nothing to be fussed about:

Although absence rates in teaching tend to be higher than ostensibly comparable figures for other similar occupations and sectors, however, they are not wildly out of line. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely the opportunity to take the occasional day off that makes a teaching career attractive to many people with children. Except for schools and districts with persistently high rates of absence, then, the rate of teacher absences itself should probably not be a cause for great concern.

On the other hand, Kate Walsh, says reformers have only recently decided to make an issue of teacher absenteeism as just another way that teachers suck, so I’m sure the complaints are going to get louder in the days to come.

My own use of sick time is next to non-existent. I have used 2.something days in 4 years. My first year, I had a recurring and dangerous infection that simply wouldn’t go away. Moreover, each recurrence required use of some really severe antibiotics that made me so sick that one morning I literally walked/ran out of class to throw up in the huge garbage can parked conveniently outside my door (not there, I hasten to add, for that purpose). I walked back in, a student gave me a fresh bottle of water (the school didn’t have drinking fountains), and I finished the day without incident. I took a partial day when the infection first showed up, and one full day when the infection returned overnight; in both cases I had to go to the doctor and then wait for the meds to take effect.

My second year, I took no sick days, but was forced to use a sub for six days of required professional development. Had I not been completely inept at using the automated absentee system, I would have been gone for eight days, but in two instances I screwed up and no sub was available at the last minute, so I skipped PD. (I should have made the same mistake 6 more times, but I was afraid they’d notice.)

Last year, I taught an entire day with a scratched cornea, wondering why the hell my head hurt so much. Two hours after school ended, I decided I may as well stop in at an urgent care to see why my allergies weren’t responding to medication, and was amazed when the doctor made the problem go away with some anesthetizing eyedrops—one of the only times a doctor has genuinely helped me with a medical issue. He then gave me some antibiotics to put in my eye overnight. They did the job, but an allergic reaction to the ointment made my eye look like something out of a horror film. I went into school, asked for a sub, taught first period with my sunglasses on to spare my students the trauma of my eye (most of them demanded a peek anyway), and left when the sub showed up. I then came back in after school for a department meeting. So, one day.

This year, I haven’t taken any days off. Several students have commented, unprompted, that I’m the only teacher they have who’s never used a sub.

In other words, my proposed remedy to any purported “sick leave” problem is that of someone with extraordinarily good health, a ridiculously high pain tolerance, and no kids at home. Before teaching, I spent only five and a half years in a full-time job, which is the only time I had paid vacation, sick leave, and health insurance. I’ve spent the majority of remainder of those twenty years working contract or temp, as an admin worker, a tech consultant, or a test prep instructor/tutor. In those careers, I got no sick time. Ever.

I agree with every word of Paul Bruno’s comments here. The year of forced professional development was nightmarish; I knew the kids would waste the day, but I had to prepare for it anyway. Math and science teachers have it tougher than English and history teachers here, I’m sure. If I were ever to think of taking a day off, the amount of preparation work would quickly banish any appeal.

It’s clear that most teachers either don’t agree with us or have compelling reasons to be absent—or both. I remember one day at my last school seventeen teachers called in sick on one day, and at least one day this year so many teachers were absent we ran out of subs and covering teachers and the admins had to step in. However, I’ve never gotten the impression that the admins considered this more than a minor inconvenience; teacher absenteeism at both schools is a non-issue. I know my last school district simply wouldn’t pay a teacher who took the Monday or Friday off around a 3-day weekend unless it was a documented illness. That seems a simple enough remedy. I don’t think my current district does this. (One question that arises in these discussions: are the absentee rates distinguishing between professional development and teacher-initiated absences? The Clotfelter study does make that distinction; I’m not sure all do.)

I often read ignoramuses who vent about the supposed idiocy of including unused sick time in teacher pension payouts, or advocate “use it or lose it” restrictions. Here’s a fun one:

Imagine two teachers, identical in every way except unused sick time. They’ve each been teaching for 30 years, have final average salaries of $86,636 and retire at age 60. One has the average 1.84 years of unused sick time; the other has none. The difference in lifetime pension payouts is more than $115,000. When you consider that there are 91,000 retired teachers collecting a pension, that difference starts to add up.

Jesus, this is irritating.

Suppose Teacher A and Teacher B each get 10 days of sick leave per year. At the end of the year, they are paid for all unused days. Both teachers make about $63,000/year and work 182 days a year.

Teacher A takes all ten days. She costs the school $350/day (a salary of $63,000 divided by 182), plus $100/day in sub and administration expenses. Total cost: $64,000

Teacher B takes no sick leave. She costs the school $63,000. But she makes less money per hours worked than Teacher A.

So spare me the crap arguing that paying teachers for unused sick leave is just another entitlement, okay? Wail about pension costs, fine. Give the teachers the money at the end of each year—perhaps with the option of putting it into a separate retirement account, also fine. Argue for reduced sick days for all teachers, go to town. But do not for a moment pretend that paying teachers who didn’t use their sick days is an injustice, because even leaving student achievement aside, these teachers are bargains.

If pension costs for teachers and other government workers are exacerbated by reimbursing them for unused sick leave at retirement, then by all means pay them their entire daily rate for the unused time at the end of each year.

But while this will solve the pension problem, it won’t necessarily solve the costs of teacher absenteeism—substitutes and, perhaps, weaker student achievement.

Most studies I’ve read (admittedly, I haven’t researched extensively) don’t address the dual problems of teacher sick pay and absenteeism—that is, they are focused entirely on either pension costs or day to day costs, and so want to decrease overall sick time or accrued sick time. They ignore the fairness problem I’ve outlined above: teachers who don’t take sick leave are costing the district less than those who are. Not reimbursing them for the money they’ve saved the district is simply unfair. Besides, without reimbursing them, any “use it or lose it” policy for teachers is a foolish idea, since it will increase absenteeism among teachers who otherwise wouldn’t think of taking time off. Any teacher—yes, even me—is going to take sick days if they will otherwise lose them.

I like this Clotfelter study (he’s done more than one on absenteeism) because it focuses on an approach for reducing teacher absenteeism, proposing “A revenue-neutral policy change , incorporating $100 in savings associated with averted payments to substitute teachers, would thus increase teacher salaries by roughly $400 per year, in exchange for teachers accepting a $50 charge for each sick day taken”.*

Thus my proposal to both reduce pension costs and teacher absenteeism:

  • Give teachers a fixed number of sick/personal days to use during the year.
  • Charge teachers $50 for each sick day taken up to the contracted amount.
  • At the end of each school year, pay teachers their full daily rate for their unused sick time.
  • Districts that want to give teachers even more incentive for staying in the classroom can give more money upfront and charge more for absences. I really like the idea of a separate retirement account (teachers have something but lordy, I can’t remember what it’s called), possibly with a matching payment in appreciation of their dedication to maintaining consistent student learning environments.

So if, as Kate Walsh asserts, paying teachers for not costing their districts more money is the new blame game, reformers might want to get it right the first time, by rewarding teachers who don’t use their time, while asking those who do to offset some of the costs.

Most teachers will hate it, of course. But when has that stopped reformers?

*(Note: the study uses North Carolina data, in which the teachers are charged $50 for each day taken after their allocated sick leave, but the researchers propose moving that fee to the first day and beyond.)

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33 responses to “Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal

  • Labropotes

    I think sick days are like free insurance against the loss of income due to illness. Asserting that every insured is entitled to a “full limit payout” because they have been given free insurance is, in my view, unreasonable. Saying that teachers will just lie if they don’t get the payout is symptomatic of our national problem. Which is that personal integrity is for chumps.

    • educationrealist

      You can think what you like, but you’re wrong. Sick days aren’t “free insurance”. And teachers aren’t lying if they take days that are given to them.

      The only people who aren’t paid for sick leave are professionals that get unlimited sick leave (I did, in the few years I worked for a company). Everyone else, it’s a benefit.

      And again, why should teachers who cost the state less be penalized when teachers who take the time cost the state more? Idiotic, particularly if the goal is to get teachers to use less sick time.

      • Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno)

        Teachers are lying if they take the days for reasons not covered by the terms of their contract. Most teachers work under contracts that stipulate that sick leave is for things like “illness or injury”; if a teacher who isn’t sick or injured takes the time just because they feel like it, that could reasonably be described as lying.

      • educationrealist

        From your own post:

        “Who are these teachers who are calling in sick just to take a break? Do they have vastly more stressful workplace environments? Or are they just more indifferent than I am when it comes to planning for and dealing with substitutes?”

        You had no problem with the idea that these were people who were using sick leave to take a break, and that the only thing you objected to was the work involved with calling in sick.

        Now, suddenly, you’re declaring it unethical in some way unique to teachers.

    • Paul Bruno (@MrPABruno)

      I’m not sure why you think there’s some sort of contradiction here, but, when did I say anything was unique to teachers? It would obviously be lying for anybody to claim sick leave provided only for sickness when they are not sick.

  • Labropotes

    I agree that “free” was inappropriate and that you have a good pragmatic solution to a bad incentive. But the days were to be “given” to teachers, or any employee, in the event that they are sick. Thus the name. Teachers are lying if they call in sick when they are not. I’ve told the same lie for reasons that seemed good at the time. If every time a person is given slack, exploiting that slack by 100% becomes a right, we are going to live in a very rigid society. Which is maybe where we do live right now.

    In saying that teachers are penalized for not using their sick days, you have already assumed that they are entitled to be paid for sick days they never needed. Obviously, I cost my insurer less if I don’t make a claim. If we have to pay teachers a little bribe to show up, i.e. to not make a claim, so be it. But it is like insurance fraud in that everyone’s premium goes up. In your case, you don’t see it, but the costs of teacher truancy are taken out of your total compensation package somewhere.

    • educationrealist

      In saying that teachers are penalized for not using their sick days, you have already assumed that they are entitled to be paid for sick days they never needed.

      Um. Yeah. Because they ARE getting paid for the unused time. As part of their PENSION. The reason they are paid for it is because reasonable people have already realized that it’s foolish to penalize people who are more committed to their job than people who take off—that is, they have already assumed teachers are entitled to be paid for unused sick days.

      BTW, If they aren’t required to get a note until the third day, then they aren’t committing fraud or lying if they take off.

      You do realize that this baseline assumption was part of the Clotfelter report, right? Not something I just made up?

  • Roger Sweeny

    In Massachusetts, teachers are on salary. Teacher A who takes ten sick days and Teacher B who takes none would be paid exactly the same. The $350 daily equivalent is not an additional cost for Teacher A. It is paid no matter what. Of course, students lose the teacher for those ten days and that is supposedly worth $350/day. But that cost is to the students, not the school system. Monetarily, Teacher A only costs the school system the extra $100 a day due to the costs of getting a sub.

    My town gives all teachers 3 don’t-have-to-give-a-reason “personal days.” Some use them for errands; some for “mental health” days. My experience is that most teachers use all three but then don’t take any other days, sick or otherwise. I hate to be away from class, and sub plans are a pain to make, so I don’t use them at all (and if I don’t take any other days, I qualify for a $500 perfect attendance bonus).

    • educationrealist

      Roger–that’s pretty much how it works everywhere. Teachers are on salary everywhere. Nonetheless, we are actually paid for x days. It’s pretty clearly marked out in each contract.

      So you’re not describing anything different. My proposal addresses the problem inherent in your description: teachers who work fewer days get paid the same and impose more costs than teachers who work more days.

      In the corporate world, by the time I left it, professionals didn’t get sick leave any more. There was no coverage issue, professionals usually worked more than the daily 8 hours, and if they were gone more than a couple days it went on to disability. But teaching isn’t like that. We are paid primarily for the hours we are in front of a class, and so when we aren’t there, there’s no way for us to make it up. It is for this reason that most teachers get paid for their unused time already.

      Again, that’s the norm. That’s not the proposal. Right now, it’s either “pay at pension” or “use it or lose it”. I’m saying use it or lose it is absurd, because teachers will use it, and that pay at pension is expensive.

      The proposal: 1) pay at year end; 2) make teachers pay some portion of replacement costs.

  • Thea Nelson

    One reason teachers take sick days is the number of sick children who come to school coughing, sneezing, etc. Parents don’t appreciate teachers coming to school sick because the germs go both ways.

    People question teachers taking sick days because it is one of the few jobs where if you aren’t there someone else HAS to be there.

    • educationrealist

      The contagion issue is particularly a big deal for elementary school teachers.

      “People question teachers taking sick days because it is one of the few jobs where if you aren’t there someone else HAS to be there.”

      Indeed! That’s why my proposal. To give teachers who don’t get sick an extra incentive to stay at work, while asking teachers who do get sick, or have sick kids, to pay a portion of the sub. If you read the Clotfelter report, this is combined with paying the teachers slightly more to begin with, to offset the sub deduction.

      As I said, I’m not convinced that teacher absenteeism is much of a problem except in high stress schools. But I do think it’s going to be one of the new fronts in the “Get teacher” offense.

  • SOBL1

    There is no magic bullet. The sick leave management and set up varies per every school district. The best program for managing time absences and returning employees to work for non-cold or flu like illnesses is to have a sick bank that caps, and then attach a short term disability program whether funded internally or through an insurance company out to PERS/STRS. This comes down to management between the union and school district, but allowing never-ending accrual of sick days is just asking for a yearly pay out to generally healthy employees or a giant payout at retirement (or super-spike payout to boost a pension). I’d say allow annual days but cap them at 30, then slap a short term program either self funded or funded thru an ins co.

    Use it or lose it. That is what most of private sector America endures if they have sick days. Any studies on sick day utilization in use it or lose it vs. accrual for the private sector? The idea of teachers taking sick time because they’d just lose it won’t help in the PR department, and honestly, teachers being public ees right now are a nice juicy target for a public that is hungry for enemies and doesn’t want to look in the mirror.

    • educationrealist

      That is what most of private sector America endures if they have sick days. Any studies on sick day utilization in use it or lose it vs. accrual for the private sector?

      I used to work in the private sector. Everyone used it; very few people lost it, and were called suckers when they did. Then there was the rise of “flex time”–which allowed people to use a fixed number of days for either sick time or vacation–hey, it’s almost like they realized that people use sick time for vacation, or something!–and then, at least where I lived, professionals started getting vacation time to accrue and could take ad hoc sick days with impunity. That works well with people who work to get the job done. But otherwise, I suspect most of it is now use it or lose it–and everyone uses it.

      Teaching isn’t the private sector, and as has been observed by me and others, it’s about the only job in which every absence must be filled.

      The idea of teachers taking sick time because they’d just lose it won’t help in the PR department, and honestly, teachers being public ees right now are a nice juicy target for a public that is hungry for enemies and doesn’t want to look in the mirror.

      The public loves teachers and is not terribly enthusiastic about reform. I doubt the public would think it odd that teachers, like everyone else, would be chastised for use it or lose it.

      In general, generous sick leave is one of the appealing features of teaching for many young women planning to raise a family, so anyone wanting to professionalize the job might get a really unintended consequence. But since cost cutting must come, I’d suggest contracts that reduce the offered sick leave but always pay teachers who don’t use it.

      • Tim

        Interesting. No one would be called a sucker in my workplace if they didn’t use all their sick time, they’d be considered prudent. Sure, we’re offered sick time but it’s quite clear that taking all our available sick days if we aren’t deathly ill or (even worse) ever acting like they are an extension of vacation time is tantamount to asking to be fired. In my mind this explains the subtext to the ‘use it or lose it’ statement above: Employers want their cake and the ability to eat it, they want to say they have sick time available but they also want to make sure that you know that if you use it, you’d better be darned valuable. I take this for granted however, employers will always push for a better deal for them over time. Labor shortages (or shortages of specialized skills), government regulations or unions can push things in the favor of the employee and are therefore all on the ‘enemies’ list. Of course this is all from the private perspective, I imagine govt employment has its own pitfalls.

      • educationrealist

        Are you a professional who has been given sick time? You are saying you are a professional who doesn’t call in and say “Hey, I’m feeling crappy, I’ll be on email?”

      • Tim

        Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I can’t remember the last sick day I took. It was at least three years ago, if not more.

      • educationrealist

        You are saying you never left work to go to a doctor’s appointment? Say you normally leave at 8, you didn’t take off at 4 to go to the doctor or just leave because you felt punkish?

        Are you also saying that you have deliberately left this time on the table every year, that you had x days and didn’t take them and lost them? Moreover, are you saying that people who did take them got fired, or that you were personally just worried about getting fired?

      • SOBL1

        Any reports to cite the sick leave use or programs in the private sector? Sounds anecdotal and I have as many anecdotes to run the opposite. I’d also argue that with how lean corps are running, if people do sandbag for sick days then their coworkers peer pressure with switch on, add in lack of job security and people come in sick to look like a contributor. I look at people’s employee benefits packages everyday, and public groups (schools included) are the last that have accrue forever sick leave programs.

        People might love teachers, but you’ll find plenty of people not enthused by their benefits packages. Muni bond holders are 1st class passengers on the Titanic, and the public unions are 2nd class. With the rising class of unemployed, underemployed, and temp connected ees with crap benefits, a class of workers with cushy benefits that are taxpayer (and bondholder) funded will be a target.

      • educationrealist

        Why are you focusing on accrue forever? I’m not sure you understand the proposal or even my comments to you.

      • SOBL1

        I mention no cap accrual as it is an oddball feature of teacher benefits that is widespread and an emblem of the difficulties of reform. A lot of private sector ees do not understand the mentality of teachers and benefits and how they are vastly different than private sector because of the nature of teaching as you have mentioned.

        Your proposal is nice, but there’s no magic bullet due to the many different CBAs.

      • educationrealist

        It appears not to have occurred to you that teacher benefits are the only benefits relevant here, which is why your obsession with private benefits is getting more than a bit tedious.

  • Bill

    I agree with you that teachers should be paid for sick days they did not take, but the arithmetic in this example seems wrong:

    Suppose Teacher A and Teacher B each get 10 days of sick leave per year. At the end of the year, they are paid for all unused days. Both teachers make about $63,000/year and work 182 days a year.

    Teacher A takes all ten days. She costs the school $350/day (a salary of $63,000 divided by 182), plus $100/day in sub and administration expenses. Total cost: $4500.

    Teacher B takes no sick leave. In June, she is paid the $350/day as an incentive for not using sick leave. Total cost: $3500.

    Ignoring other benefits, it cost the district $66,500 to cover Teacher B’s class room—that’s $63,000 salary plus $350/day times 10 days for the unused leave. It cost the district $64,000 to cover Teacher A’s class room—that’s $63,000 salary plus $100/day times 10 days for the sub. So, it’s $2,500 more expensive for the district if the teacher takes no sick leave. Presumably this is worth it for continuity of instruction reasons. If all one cares about is the money, then the solution is to pay teachers for unused sick days at the sub rate—then Teacher A and Teacher B cost the exact same amount.

    You counted the baseline pay of Teacher A for the ten days but failed to do so for Teacher B. Counting your way, Teacher B cost the district $7,000 for the ten days—they pay her twice for them.

  • Eugene

    I asked about changing sick leave in my district because I also thought the incentives were misguided (think they still are but, I get the other side of the argument better). We do not have short or long-term disability unless we want to pay for it out of pocket after taxes. Since we do not pay into social security we can not apply for disability through that system therefore we are able to accrue sick time as a type of disability insurance. When are getting closer to retirement sick time is capped off at 150 days, so those people who have more than that start to use it. In the 6 years I have been in public school I have seen teachers use this system in both regards. Teacher A wanted to continue teaching for two more years, but came down with a degenerative illness and had to stop working. He was able to use his accrued sick time to essentially be employed until his retirement date came up. Otherwise he would have had to stop working immediately and not have any health insurance or ability to pay for that insurance until he reached the appropriate age. Teacher B has perfectly healthy wanted to retire at the end of the next year but decided to work 30 days and used up the 150 he had accrued to make up the difference.

    The thing is both of these situations are allowed under the current contract. Ethically I think it is bogus but I find it hard to argue against it when it was the only choice for the very sick teacher. Creating language to differentiate between the two seems easy until you realize that they are two ends of a continuum and it is very hard to argue where the line should be drawn.

    • educationrealist

      That’s excellent information. I didn’t realize that about disability (since I have paid into soc sec, I believe I qualify, although that’s an interesting question). Great comment, thanks.

  • Eugene

    You need to pay into ss for a set amount of time to qualify. If you are a career teacher, accrued sick time is a life saver literally since you have never paid into ss, you would not be able to receive that benefit.

    • educationrealist

      So career teachers don’t have any access to disability? Cops and firefighters do, don’t they?

      • Eugene

        I don’t know. I assume it is different since it is so much easier to get hurt in the line of duty with those professions, statistically. I know that I am covered if I get hurt doing my job under workman’s comp. The above comment was based on a response I got from central office (I am bad at remembering direct quotes), I have not dug further into it.

  • Anthony

    The real problem with sick leave and pensions is not that we pay out retiring teachers a half-year’s salary of accrued sick leave. It’s that that extra half-year of salary is added to their regular year’s salary when calculating pension benefits, which, for most public-sector jobs, are based almost entirely on the last few years of pay. In city government, they do this a little differently – you get a promotion and advanced to top of scale for your last year. This costs the city a year’s worth of extra salary, and costs the pension fund (which isn’t the city) 10 to 30 years of extra pension benefits. Since most teacher contracts are pretty inflexible with salaries, school districts can’t do that, but counting accrued vacation and sick leave into the final year’s salary costs the school district almost nothing, but gives a nice spike to the pension payments of people more likely to live a long time in retirement.

  • Josephine

    Why are you picking on teachers? Too many professions to count are given sick days are given them as a benefit to their jobs. Why should anyone have a problem with whether they are used or not? People are such hypocrites, one minute teaching is a noble profession, the next minute teachers are lazy liars. The world is full of such hypocracy and teachers are professionals who have a certain number of perks to their jobs, so what. Since when is it a crime to have perks on a job?

    Did you all know that the NFL and the MBL are non-profit organizations? How is that right? Do you think they have sick day monitors? There are so many things wrong in this world pick a new profession to pick on pick a new one this one has been beaten to death.

  • Teaching Oddness #3: What Happens When We’re Absent | educationrealist

    […] three years ago, I wrote a piece on teacher sick leave that still gets a lot of views. There was a glitch in it that a commenter pointed out. I fixed it a […]

  • Secondyear Teacher

    Now imagine if you will, a teacher paying the substitute teacher out of their own pocket. Not only am I not being paid for being sick and having to miss, I am essentially being penalized for it. Yes, this is the reality I am living. How about this for a reason to ponder the thought of relocating to another state such as Arkansas. The closest schools are only an extra 15 minute drive away.

    • educationrealist

      Well, that’s one of the suggestions I made. Hopefully, you get more money to compensate. If not, Arkansas sounds like a good bet. But don’t wait too long, because the longer you work, the more pay you’ll lose in a transfer.

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