Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Sick Days, or, I Never Thought of That

Managing can be depressing. It’s depressing because you can’t just avert your gaze, like a normal person, when people do boneheaded things. You have to take it all in, figure out just what the hell they were thinking, and then try to talk reason with them. They usually get offended and accuse you of horrible things, then go back to receiving signals from the mothership. And they have tenure.

For example, there’s a loophole in our sick day policy. Sick days accumulate until retirement, at which point they’re paid out up to a maximum in the mid-five-figures. (The same does not apply to administrators, btw.) Most faculty do everything possible to minimize their use of sick days, to preserve the big payout. The size of the payout strikes me as immoral, but at least it rewards good attendance, which is something.

Now assume that one professor has shifted his gaze to another part of the contract. There, it says that using three or more sick days in a row requires a doctor’s note. This professor has accumulated plenty of days over the decades, and is spending them now at the rate of two a week. Since the contract sets the threshold for verification at three consecutive days, he can do this and get paid for it until the cows come home.

The catch, of course, is that he has classes. That is, he’s scheduled for classes. On any given day, it’s a crapshoot. And his students (and their parents) are getting surly.

In a rational system, he’d be invited to take a long walk off a short plank, and that would be the end of it. But with tenure and a union, there isn’t much I could do. I could, theoretically, start turning down the sick leave requests, but the union grievance would hit faster than you could say ‘featherbedding,’ and the union would win. The contract is very clear on the rules for sick days.

At the heart of the problem is that nobody thought of this in advance. It’s so ridiculously unprofessional, so obviously beyond the pale, that the folks who wrote the contract originally probably never thought of it. But contracts being contracts, and tenure being tenure, I can’t address the blind spot until the next contract negotiation. Even then, the folks on the union side would surely balk, since it would never occur to them to do something so plainly stupid, so they’d try to sniff out my nefarious underlying motive.

(It’s not unlike the Seinfeld episode in which George was fired for having sex with the cleaning lady on his desk. He defended himself by saying nobody told him he couldn’t have sex with the cleaning lady on his desk, so how was he supposed to know?)

Ideally, I’d be able to ask him informally what was going on. If there was some sort of major personal issue he was trying to balance, we could talk about FMLA leaves or personal leaves or whatever else. But assume that he’s as evasive with me as he is with his students.

Rigid rules, like tenure and union contracts, lend themselves to loophole-seeking. I know that faculty get jumpy at any mention of ‘ managerial discretion,’ but without it, this kind of abusive behavior can go on for years.

In my faculty days, I’d roll my eyes at someone like this and go on about my business. Now, this is my business. And there’s not a damn thing I can do to address it.

What does your school do about sick days? Have you had any issues like this? Is there a solution I’m not seeing?

Here faculty get no sick days. We are supposed to wait until summer to get sick. If you're going to be sick during the semester for a day or two, then you find someone to cover. If you're seriously ill, then you take FMLA. In between? Fake it.
If you have any power over the faculty schedules, can you not make this person's schedule unpalatable? There are many ways to make a schedule difficult, I would imagine.

After all, what goes around, comes around, and faculty who want to be swinging richards (i.e., unprofessional dicks) shouldn't expect to get their banker's hours handed to them on a silver platter.

At my campus, academic deans basically make the faculty schedules, unless they choose to delegate the task. But even so, they still have to sign off on it. I've seen this power used for punitive measures before; for example, one dean got into a tiff with some faculty, and created some MWF sections of classes which he then assigned them to. Faculty from that department typically have MW or TTh classes, so their "punishment" was coming in at the crack of dawn on Friday morning to teach. After one semester, the MWF sections disappeared, and it was back to business as usual.
Oh dear god. As a faculty member, I am happy to be rolling my eyes and not having to deal with the problem.

I'm guessing this is costing a mint in substitute pay, as well, which is why it's not necessarily immoral to pay out sick days in the mid five figures upon retirement...each sick day used adds substitute pay as well.

Doesn't his department have something to say to him about this? I'd think the peer pressure would be awful.

Wow, rudbeckia...no sick days? I had that as an adjunct, but that is a horrid policy.
"No sick pay" is probably more common in higher education than a formal "sick pay" policy...at least at non-union shops.

The issues seem to me to be two:
(1) Using sick leave in that way is a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the policy.
(2) It imposes costs on students (whether there's a replacement, who will not be as familiar with the course, or not), on colleagues (if one makes an effort to find someone to substitute), or on the institution, if, as in many elementary/secondary systems, substitutes are paid.

One way to move toward a zero-tolerance world is to try to negotiate for medical evidence for any absence.

I know that some of my colleagues do something similar. We mostly have a two-day-a-week teaching load (MW/TTh), and a fair number of people aren't here except the days they teach. What they are doing on those days is sometimes subject to some discussion. But at least they make their classes.
Dumb question: Could you alert the union reps to the issue now? Maybe you can get them to do the heavy lifting of finding a way to solve the problem.

it really bothers me that there are so many things about which the people in charge in academia cannot do a damn thing.
I wonder whether the contract has a general clause, akin to the morals clauses in some sports contracts, to the effect that employee and employer are required to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times. Deliberate undermining of the terms of the contract with a pattern of misconduct, such as abuse of sick days, ought to be actionable.

Once again, you make a great case for eliminating tenure. It's sad how a few rotten apples can spoil things for everyone.
I think adding a clause that a doctor's note is also required when using X or more sick days out of an N day period.
The pilots in Scandinavian Airlines recently took out sick days instead of going on strike. (http://www.aftenposten.no/english/business/article1204458.ece) I think it's an appalling misuse of a right that was fought for hard...
No sick days? That seems awfully harsh. My old school got this one pretty much right -- we each got something like 5 sick days a year, and you could carry over up to 3, so the most you could have at any given time was 8. At my current school, you can carry them over until you die.

Punitive scheduling is an option, I guess, but it would hurt the students more than the faculty. Besides, if a professor can't be bothered to show up for a convenient schedule, I'd imagine that he'd be even less likely to show up for an inconvenient one.

Requiring a note for even a single day doesn't pass the gut test. I can't usually even get an appointment with a doctor in a single day. And I don't want to punish the innocent majority.

Union reps? I hadn't thought of it. Thanks for the idea. It might be worth a discussion.

Maria's point is one of those that makes sense until you look at it upside-down. If you set a maximum threshold, you're implicitly allowing anything up to the maximum as an entitlement. Gotta watch out for that!

I'd LOVE some sort of "gimme a break" clause in the contract, but the union is about as likely to go for that as it is to relinquish health insurance. It's desperately needed, though.

When tenure is threatened, you get all the rhetoric about academic freedom and the autonomy needed for creative work. But when it comes to sick leave, the language of entitlement creeps in awfully fast.
Put out an email to the rest of the faculty asking for a substitute. After a few weeks of this some peer pressure may be applied. Make it public, in a nice way, to your faculty.
Kimmett's suggestion of talking to the union reps is probably the best idea--perhaps insinuating that if abuses are not curbed, the sick leave policy might come up the next time that you go into bargaining.

Where I teach, we have a sick leave bank for faculty and librarians, who can donate sick leave to those who really need it. But there's also an ethos that you teach unless you can't make it to the classroom or you would spread a pandemic if you did. (I once taught with what I discovered later was a 103-degree fever. Fortunately it was a discussion class, and when I told the students that I was not feeling well, they carried most of the weight.) If you don't have that ethos, then looking for an "unprofessional behavior" clause might be the best approach.
Quite honestly, I'll take the occasional jerk abusing a contract to not having a union (which is my situation as a grad student which is why I'm a union organizer). I think tenure should be abolished in favor of long, renewable contracts negotiated with union rep help.

If you are warm and clearly asking for help, you'd be surprised how willing unions are to accommodate reasonable requests (and figuring out what to do with this jerk is obviously reasonable).
Maybe you should require that if the sick leave requires the professor to miss a scheduled class, a doctor's note is required "in the interest of the students." That phrase, hammered again and again, could win you the support you need?

I don't think peer pressure would work, because people who act like that are exactly the ones immune to peer pressure. Where I am (Europe), people should in principle bring a doctor's note for every single day, but there is sort of an an agreement between employers, employees and health insurance (i.e. social security) that you only have to go to the doctor after three days. This privilege will, however, be recalled by the insurance (so that the dean is not even the "bad guy"), if someone is sick two days every week.
Once again, Dean Dad, this was a timely post as I was taken violently ill yesterday afternoon and had to cancel my three-hour-long evening class.

Our institution doesn't have any policy for one-off sick days and, to be honest, if I were to seek out a replacement, it would have to be drawn from my colleagues who are overburdened at the moment. Not to mention the fact that no one in my department could have covered the topics I had planned. . . .

It's frustrating because I can't even reschedule the class -- we're stuck with this timeslot and no makeup days are possible.
An interesting discussion to which I would like to add my two cents.

My preface is two-fold. Firstly, I am Canadian (not as in the beer commercial, just simple national identity). I think relevant here because I believe my "nationality" causes me to have a general bias in favour of generous social policy. Secondly, I used to be a K-12 teacher in a highly unionized system with what I suspect many reading this post and subsequent comments would consider generous benefits (an easy example that may make some go wow: 9 weeks of 95% salary top up (from the fed. gov's 55%-ish max) for maternity benefits -- the goverment will continue to provide 41 more weeks of parental leave at the 55%-ish mark). So, there are the context clues.

As a teacher, I earned 20 sick days per year which I could accumulate up to a maximum of 180 days of sick leave (a school year is 197 days) with no cash payout at the end of your career. A nasty virus during my fourth year of teaching caused me to miss over my 20 day annual max -- the doctor forbade me from going to work for over 3 weeks, I didn't ask for a note, she wrote it and said you MUST go home -- I was glad to have accumulated a bit of sick leave in previous years which permitted me to recover without financial stress. My wretched virus not withstanding, after 13 years, I had my 180 days in the "bank." In other words, I didn't experience the "need" to use up days because of entitlement (just garden variety professionalism really).

I guess that is what I'm thinking. It is a question of professionalism. If there is a code of ethics attached to the union contract (as is the case in our province), then perhaps consequences can flow from a lack of professionalism.

Eliminating tenure doesn't seem to me to be a cure-all. As someone who used to have tenure as a teacher (and didn't abuse sick days or other professional privileges) but is now faced with contract life at a University and impending tenure-track status, I feel the stress involved in acquiring tenure can make some pretty smart people do some pretty dumb things.

For a long time I have been thinking that the problem isn't tenure per se, it is finding better ways to invite our unprofessional, or tired, or disillusioned, or... colleagues to reconceputalize their practice or leave the profession. Backhanded stuff like crappy course schedules and the like seem to me more unprofessional ways to contribute to the nastiness.

Best wrap as I hear myself sounding a bit pie-in-the-sky -- perhaps though we could work toward a mutual respect between workers (and even their unions now and then) and employers that helps both parties act responsibly.

As I get older and have more and more friends and relatives dealing with cancer and other demons, a bit of sick leave in the bank seems like quite a humane benefit indeed.

Thanks Dean Dad for continually posing questions that generate discussion and thought.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dean Dude,

Basically, you've got to show this chump that you mean business.

A few suggestions:

1) (Assuming your school's policy includes a provision that sick leave is to be used for those times when you are *sick*), Give him a call at home to see how he's doing.

2) Send one of your more maternally inclined employees over to his house with an old fruitcake (or something from the day-old bakery) out of concern for his poor health.

3) Make sure that all surly students and parents have this guy's home phone number, address and make and model of his car.

4) Call in an anonymous tip to the local paper, and most Geraldo-like tv reporter.

5) Assign him some distance learning classes - that way you don't have to worry about subs, and if he's sick, the work just piles up.

6) If you're lucky enough to have a prison outreach program, schedule Professor Sickly to teach some classes there. I'm sure you could find an inmate who (in exchange for a carton of Marlboros) would be happy to arrange for the Professor to take more than two consecutive sick days.

7) Perhaps as a youth, you read "The Chocolate War." Cultivation of a few thuggish students willing to undertake the occasional unsavory task on your behalf (e.g. tailing the guy on his "sick" day), will enable you to solve all sorts of otherwise intractable administrative problems.

7b) Pick up a copy of "American Beauty" and give it to one of your student thugs. Explain your situation, and ask the ST to pay particular attention to the scene in which the Kevin Spacey character negotiates his severance pay...
Wait a second. All this discussion about punitive consequences and figuring out how to jiggle between the cracks on a contract leaves out the possibility that maybe this particular individual genuinely DOES have a health condition. And maybe whatever it is bothers him so much that he's barely capable of completing his regular activities.

When you consider this person's past history, does he have a tendency to try to get around the rules? Or is missing so many classes a new development for him? Maybe he feels as if his presence or absence is irrelevent to the classroom, and needs to feel more important.

I'm taking a couple of community college classes myself. There are some computer labs where it's basically all student workdays, and the presence or absence of the instructor really is irrelevant, except for the fact that the younger students tend to be quieter when there is a teacher in the room.

Otherwise maybe your teacher had a job offer and is thoroughly sick of being at your school yet is just trying to minimally satisfy his responsibilities just to make it through to the end. Was he planning to teach next semester before these excessive absences started happening?
I hear ya, DD. I'm the chair of a small department, and, yes, my faculty use their sick days in ways, which are at their least sketchy and at their most immoral. One favorite tacic is to use their sick days AFTER they've turned in their time sheets. My school implemented time sheets as a way to cut down on the practice of unaccounted-for sick days. But some faculty conveniently forget to account for the sick days on the next month's time sheets.

Now I have to consider if it's worth a knock-down argument with a tenured faculty member over the issue.
I think you need to think outside the box. Assuming he is truly abusing the problem and not actually sick, if the sick leave is affecting the guy's teaching, he will get a bad evaluation from his students, no? He is demonstrating a pattern of bad behavior that you might have other allowable options for addressing.

Also, talking to the union reps is a great idea (our union contract has a requirement for "consultations" every semester during which these sorts of issues can be raised for mutual problem-solving). Union people hate this sort of behavior too--it makes everyone look bad.

Maybe at the next contract negotiation you can suggest adding a "maximum days per semester" threshhold to the "three days per week" threshhold.

Ultimately this may be the sort of issue that it's impossible to design out of the system completely. That doesn't mean one should give up on the system, as some commenters seem to suggest. We don't have a perfect justice system either ("better one guilty person go free than an innocent person be wrongly convicted") but who would want to live in a place that didn't have the presumption of innocence?
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