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Work & Careers | ON THE JOB / STUART SILVERSTEIN

Employers Use 'Get Tough' Flexibility to Crack Down on Worker Absenteeism

September 14, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN

The time-honored tradition of calling in sick to get a day off from work may be gradually fading into history.

Workplace experts say employers are curbing absenteeism largely through programs that clamp down on sick-day abusers while also providing employees more freedom to schedule time off for personal reasons. Other factors, including job insecurities among many workers, are also playing a role.

The latest evidence of declining absenteeism came in a recent survey of 451 U.S. employers conducted by CCH Inc., a publishing company based in suburban Chicago that specializes in human resources issues. It found that absenteeism in 1997 has fallen to the lowest level in the seven years CCH has been conducting the poll, down 16% from a year ago and 24% below the peak level set in 1991.

Still, the trend isn't universal. Just last week, a sickout was staged by hundreds of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies seeking a better union contract offer.

More important, the survey found that absenteeism at the biggest companies has remained stable and that the problem still is growing at small firms. Big declines at mid-size companies, however, brought down the overall average.

Most of the surveyed employers said they see paid-time-off, or paid-leave-bank, programs as the best way to curb absenteeism.

These programs typically lump together a worker's sick days and vacation days into a single time-off bank. Personal days and even holidays are sometimes included. When workers want a day off, for whatever reason, they simply take a day from the bank--without resorting to feigning illness.

"You treat people like adults and they can manage their own time off," said Brad S. Carter, a consultant with the employee benefits firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

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To sweeten the programs, employers sometimes pay workers at the end of the year for their unused time off.

But paid-time-off banks also have a "get tough" side. Workers who take a lot of sick days wind up with fewer days left over for vacation. And when employers adopt these programs, they often reduce the overall number of paid days off available to employees.

For instance, some employees who previously were entitled to 10 days of vacation, two personal days and five sick days a year--or 17 days in all--might wind up instead with a bank of 15 paid days off.

Years of big corporate layoffs also appear to be holding down absenteeism. Despite the nation's current low unemployment rate, many workers--particularly older employees--worry that if they lose their current job, their next job will have inferior benefits. They may forgo taking days off to avoid winding up on a layoff "hit list," said Gary Blau, an expert in employee attitudes and behavior at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Blau said yet another reason for declining absenteeism is the spread of flexible work schedules that, for instance, enable workers to come in late one day to take care of an errand and then make up the time another day.

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Where absenteeism is most severe, the solutions tend to be the most hard-nosed. While serving as the human resources manager of a plastics manufacturing company in the early 1990s, Randall J. Krzesinski found that production was being hampered by the large numbers of workers who either failed to show up or arrived late to work. What's more, he was bombarded by complaints from employees who said they were punished more harshly for their absenteeism than workers who were "favorites" of the supervisors.

Krzesinski responded by setting up a system that assigned demerit points to workers who were absent or late, regardless of the reason. Any production worker who received more than the allowed number of points over a 12-month period would be warned, suspended or even fired if the problem persisted. In contrast, workers with perfect or near-perfect attendance were awarded prizes, such as gift certificates to restaurants, and their names were put on an honor roll posted prominently on a company bulletin board.

The program "rattled more than a few cages," Krzesinski said. "Employees began to question the policy and said it was too severe. But it really did have the net effect of eliminating from the work force those people who had been abusing the system."

Still, Krzesinski, now the human resources director of the nonprofit Crippled Children's Society of Southern California, said he is more inclined to introduce a paid-time-off bank at his new organization than something resembling the plastics company's program. Among other reasons, he said, absenteeism isn't as high at his new workplace, and, consequently, he doesn't think he needs to take a "punitive" approach.

On top of that, Krzesinski said, paid-time-off banks "let employees have more control. . . . They play the primary role in determining what days off they will have with pay each year."

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Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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