Nov. 17, 2004--With recent statistics showing unscheduled employee absenteeism at a five-year high, employers are increasingly turning to alternative methods in hopes of curbing this trend, which can contribute not only to lower morale but also to increased costs.

"What we've seen is a shift," said Lori Rosen, an employment law expert at CCH, which publishes an annual survey of employee absenteeism patterns. "Employers are understanding that their employees are not necessarily sick, and we've seen a steady trend away from traditional policies into more of a 'paid time off' or PTO bank, where it's not differentiated and the employee has more control."

The 2004 CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey, released last month, found that as employee absenteeism continues to rise, employers are also tightening their grip on employee sick days by decreasing the amount that can be rolled over from one year to the next. It said that the number of employers who allow workers to carry over unused days into the following year has plunged from 51% in 2000 to 37% in 2004. Ninety-one percent of organizations the CCH surveyed use some form of disciplinary action to control absenteeism, but such policies can discourage employees from staying home when they are indeed sick.

"Our studies have found that only a third of the people calling in sick are actually ill," Rosen said. "The others are calling in for a variety of reasons. But we need to look at those reasons and deal with them and work with them. I think that if you're going to run a progressive organization, you have to think of what you're going to offer someone who at some point is going to want time off because they have kids in a school play, or need to go to the doctor or need to go to the bank in the middle of the day to talk about refinancing a mortgage. All of those things can usually be worked out."

The CCH survey found that full-time employers offered significantly less sick time on average in 2004 than in the previous year, but that the amount used by employees remained virtually unchanged from 2003. Companies granted an average of 6.9 sick days to employees in 2004, according to CCH, down from 7.6 days in 2003. But employees used 5.8 of those days in 2004, a slight increase from the 5.6 used in 2003.

"I think that employers are trying to hit the reality of the situation," Rosen said. "It's not so much a question of cutting off sick days. Employers are taking a look at much more than sick time and trying to match their policies with their employees' actual needs. Employers may have figured out that they were offering more days than employees were using, and they simply reduced them by one day per year. But at the same time they are offering more types of paid leave, giving more flexibility to the employee."

Rosen sees this as a win-win situation.

"If somebody's not at work, they're getting paid the same if they called in sick that morning as they would be if they had arranged it a week ahead of time," she said. "But if someone calls in that morning, how is that work going to get done that day? If you arrange it so that employees can schedule a day off when they know they need it, rather than feeling the need to call in sick, then the employer can make sure they have the work covered in a day-to-day situation without having to forego productivity. And the employee likes the fact that the employer understands that while their job is important, there are other things that sometimes need taking care of. Employees like employers that treat them like adults. And we've seen a correlation between these policies and higher morale, which leads to greater productivity."