How sick is your sick leave?

Sick manMost managers have a love-hate relationship with sick leave. We want to be understanding and compassionate – after all, as employees will tell you, they don’t ask to be sick. On the other hand, sickness seldom strikes at a convenient time, and there is never any notice. The manager gets a phone call in the morning and the day is ruined. Shifts have to be reorganised, temps have to be brought in, projects postponed, customers contacted, meetings cancelled, documents found. And that’s the easy part.

The reality is that sick leave is abused, and abuse has consequences. There is the lack of productivity from the absent employee, and other employees are affected. Those other employees are usually more aware of abuse than managers are. They have to carry the extra workload, and the more it happens the more irritated they become. They begin looking elsewhere for work, leaving the sick, lame and lazy behind.

You cannot fight sick leave, it is an employee’s right, but you can manage it. The first step is to understand the legal rights and obligations of both employers and employees. The second is to put policies in place and require all employees and managers to follow them.

Rights and obligations
Sick leave is dealt with in sections 22 and 23 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), which you can find here.

In plain English, section 22(2) says that during every three-year cycle (starting from the day of employment) employees are entitled to the same number of days’ paid sick leave as they would normally work in a six-week period. That’s 30 days for those who work a five-day week. Those 30 days are available from the first day of the cycle. However, during the first six months of employment, sick leave accrues at the rate of one day for every 26 days worked. At the end of the six months, the employee has the balance of the 30 days available. Unused leave is not rolled over to the next cycle.

Note that 30 days is the limit of paid sick leave. Employees may still get sick, but employers do not have to pay them beyond the 30 days.

Also note that the right to be paid is not an unconditional right. An employee may be required to produce a valid medical certificate before being paid, such as when they are off for more than two consecutive days. An employer is also entitled to require a medical certificate from an employee ‘who is frequently absent’.

Policies should require employees to inform their line manager that they will not be at work. They should also should explain what employees and managers must do to have sick leave authorised and paid. Unlike other leave, sick leave is not authorised in advance. Until it is approved – usually after the employee returns to work – it remains unauthorised leave.

The manager (guided by law and company policy) must, therefore, decide whether the leave will remain unauthorised (which may have disciplinary consequences for the employee) or be approved. If the sick leave is approved the manager must then decide whether it should be paid or unpaid.

Policies should also note that sick leave is for incapacity. A medical certificate must state ‘that the employee was unable to work’. Attending a clinic, having tests done or getting medication do not constitute sick leave.  For those you might grant time off, or an employee may take vacation leave.

Managers should meet with employees on their return to work to check on the employee’s health and discuss issues that may have arisen as a result of their absence. They may also discuss any concerns, such as frequency and patterns of absence.

Managers must examine and assess each medical certificate received. Requirements for medical certificates are laid down by the Health Professions Council of South Africa and can be found here. Two key points are the dates and the doctor’s opinion.

Check the date of examination. Is it correct? What does it tell you about when the employee saw the doctor? Then check the period of incapacity; the dates must cover the full period of absence, including the first two days.

The certificate must also indicate whether the doctor examined the employee or was simply informed of the illness. There is no compulsion to pay an employee when the doctor tells you they have not formed a medical opinion. If the doctor has not marked that part of the certificate, call the rooms and ask for clarity. Be prepared for some abuse (doctors don’t like to have their mistakes pointed out), but it is your right to know – and the employee’s payment depends on it.

What has your experience been? Do you have any questions about sick leave? Please add your comment below.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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