The average number of sick days taken by Yukon government employees decreased during most of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, something its employees' union says is due, in part, to a disagreement in interpreting the collective agreement.
In April, May, and June, the average number of sick days taken per employee per month was .38 or .39 — the lowest numbers since at least January 2017.
In 2019, employees took between .50 and .65 days during those months.
The data, obtained via a public records request, reflects sick days taken by employees working in all Yukon government departments, as well as five commissions and corporations. MLAs, justices, and justices of the peace were not included.
Steve Geick, president of the Yukon Employees' Union, said one reason for the decline is the territorial government isn't allowing some employees to use sick days when they have to quarantine for two weeks after returning to Yukon from outside of the bubble.
The collective agreement between the two parties reads, in part, "a regular employee who is unable to perform their duties because of illness, injury, quarantine or voluntary medical surgical procedures may be granted sick leave with pay."
This is certainly data that we'd be interested in investigating further. - Nigel Allan, Yukon's Public Service Commission
So employees should be allowed to use sick days while quarantining, regardless of the travel reason, Geick said on Wednesday.
"What the government is saying is that, no, you can't because you knowingly left the territory, and you knew you were going to have to self-isolate when you got back," he said.
Employees who have to self-isolate are having to use other kinds of leave, such as vacation days, Geick said.
The issue came to light a few weeks ago, and the union is trying to figure out how many people have been affected by this, he said. So it's not known how much this disagreement impacted the averages.
The union has filed a policy grievance, which covers all of its members, and a group grievance is in the works, Geick said.
Nigel Allan, a spokesperson for Yukon's Public Service Commission, said the government won't comment on that matter right now.
He said the government will look into the implications of employees taking fewer sick days.
"This is certainly data that we'd be interested in investigating further, including having some conversations with contacts in other jurisdictions just to see if they saw a similar phenomenon," he said.
About 37 per cent of the government's employees were working from home as of June 18, according to Allan.
Working from home may contribute to fewer sick days
Paola Ardiles, a lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, said people may be taking fewer sick days because they're working from home, near fewer people helping spread viruses and such.
That could have be compounded for parents. With a big chunk of in-person classes cancelled during the last school year, children didn't bring home viruses that they could have normally acquired at school, she said.
Some at-home workers may have adopted healthier habits, including eating more home-cooked meals, going on walks during breaks, and getting more sleep thanks to not commuting to work, Ardiles said.
Another potential factor is presenteeism, in which employees work when they shouldn't, such as when they're sick, Ardiles said.
"Sometimes people don't want to disclose that they are, you know, going through a period of depression or anxiety," she said.
Ardiles said she used some sick leave in June while working from home.
"I didn't want to disclose that I had a cough because I thought, 'Well, my colleagues might think that I have COVID[-19] and might think that I was somehow irresponsible or, you know, doing some kind of behaviour that wasn't safe, etc." she said.
"There's stigma around that, right?"
Her test for the illness came back negative, Ardiles said.