News & Events

Sick leave and employer-generated ‘sick leave policies’

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
March 2008 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

All MNA contracts contain a clause entitling nurses and health care professionals to time off from work for sick leave. There are many forms of sick leave allowances – ranging from time off for the employee’s personal illness or injury to the illness of a spouse, child, parent or another relative living in the employee’s household. Some even cover a contagious disease that would jeopardize the health of others. These contract clauses were hard-fought for by MNA members. The employers did not grant these on their own. Yet we are seeing employers across the state attempting to undercut these contractual rights by imposing their own "sick leave policies." These policies often are intended to limit, if not entirely take away those contractual benefits and frequently threaten discipline for the use of contractual sick time. In fact, they are designed to intimidate and penalize nurses for using a contractual benefit.

These "policies" typically define varying levels of discipline to be imposed for the use of sick days – for example, the use of four sick days warrants a verbal warning, five sick days earns the employee a written discipline, and so on.

The contract article, however, will always supersede any unilaterally imposed policy the employer invents. In such cases, the employer is simply attempting to impose limits on employees’ rights. The union must respond aggressively by challenging these phony restrictions through grievances, organizing and agitation. To paraphrase what management often likes to scold labor with: "they can’t win at the workplace what they did not win at the bargaining table."

Another related shrewd trick that hospitals recently have been engaging in is the practice of "counseling" employees for abuse of their sick leave policy. These counseling sessions are often recorded in the employee’s file, with the employer claiming that they are not disciplinary in nature. But without question – these are blatant attempts to undercut the just-cause clause in our contracts and the employee’s rights to due process. The use of such "counselings" should be addressed to assure that just cause is not undercut.

These policies often create confusion and unease among the workforce. It further imposes an unhealthy work atmosphere of fear and anxiety, often resulting in employees reporting for work even while sick. MNA members must take advantage of their contractual benefits and challenge management to respect the collective bargaining agreement that they signed.