The union representing educational assistants and other school support staff says there is no systemic absenteeism, contrary to suggestions in memos from at least two school districts.
"I don't think there's anything systemic going on here at all," said Ryan Wentworth, CUPE national representative for Local 2745, which includes administrators, educational assistants and support workers.
The comments come after two school districts sent memos reminding members of CUPE 2745 of their schools' leave policy, saying "abuse" of time off will have consequences.
A memo from Anglophone School District North, sent a week after the start of the school year, was strongly worded.
"Daily attendance is a major concern, with a significant increase in absences on Mondays and Fridays," says the memo written by Stewart Stanger, director of human resources.
The memo says an employee has been assigned to monitor leave requests and will be in charge of "identifying potential issues of abuse."
"Abuse will be dealt with ... more severely than in the past."
Wentworth said it is management's right to send such reminders, and he sees no issue with the memo or its wording.
"When I look at this memo, it is a bit more, kind of, poignant. I guess you could say they would like certain criteria followed, that's for sure," Wentworth said.
"We definitely understand and respect the employer's right to manage employees and and we encourage them to do that."
He said what's important is that people don't make generalizations while reading the contents of the memo.
"I hope these memos don't come across to whoever sees them as just, you know, painting the whole entire membership with that kind of negative connotation," he said. "Because I just don't think that's the case, to be honest."
At Anglophone South School District, employees received a similar memo. South's memo says the district is now averaging a rate of absences of 25 per cent a day.
When asked what proof the district is relying on for possible abuse of time off, Jessica Hanlon, spokesperson for Anglophone South, said the district has identified "patterns of chronic absenteeism or miscoding of leaves of absence."
A note accompanying the Anglophone North memo said the district "already seems to be in a crisis mode in this early stage of the school year."
Meredith Caissie, spokesperson for Anglophone North, said this means there's "serious or prolonged impact" on the ability to educate students.
Caissie said employee absences are not the only reason for staffing difficulties, but they are something the district can "potentially control," by sending these reminders and implementing leave policy more stringently.
Educational assistants are assigned to students with learning or physical disabilities and are in charge of assisting them throughout the day.
Caissie said EAs represent the largest number of employees in CUPE 2745, so proportionately, the number of recorded absences is highest within that group.
"These employees play a very important role in our schools," she said. "The absence of these employees directly impacts students, because they are front line."
She said the district previously had "more leeway to approve leave requests that were more non-essential in nature," but with 400 new students this year, and 300 new students last year, the district is feeling the pinch.
Caissie did not answer a question about what evidence the district has seen, if any, of actual abuse of the absence policy, but said it's what the district will be looking out for now with the additional leave monitoring.
"Abuse would be part of the overall picture, but there are also requests that are not abuse, but simply seen as more of a 'want' versus a 'need,'" she said.
'Medical appointments are known in advance'
Members of CUPE 2745 have access to different types of leave, including illness, medical appointments, emergency, bereavement and general leave.
The policy says employees must try to book medical appointments outside of work hours.
"Most appointments are still being scheduled in the middle of the day, which is clearly not making an effort to schedule around working hours," the Anglophone North memo says.
The Anglophone North memo also says medical appointments requested less than 24 hours in advance would be denied.
"Normally, medical appointments are known in advance," the memo says.
The Anglophone South memo says medical appointments with less than 48 hours' notice will be denied. It also says workers are required to log the city and time of their appointment.
Both memos say employees are expected to work before and after their medical appointments. They encourage workers to conduct their medical appointments by phone, and say phone appointments wouldn't require a day off.
There is no specific policy for mental health leave for employees of CUPE 2745.