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?