Call centre workers fear calling in sick.

29 Oct

By Shanna Reeder, Unite call centre organiser.

We’ve been receiving an increasing number of phone calls and emails from our call centre union members regarding the “negative” treatment they get for taking sick leave.

Sick leave is a basic right for all employed people in New Zealand. Paid Sick Leave is prescribed under current legislation as at least five days after six months employment. In some workplaces there are provisions in the collective employment agreement for workers to have more than five days paid sick leave per year. Sick leave can also be accumulated year to year up to 20 days by law although some collective agreements have a higher cap on how many days can be accumulated.

Regardless of this, some of our workers in call centres fear or avoid taking sick leave as they have seen their co-workers get dragged into meetings with supervisors on their return from leave to discuss the details of why they have been away. Members have been asked why they were sick, what their sickness was and what medications they are on.

Some members have even been told to lose weight or have been offered other health advice. None of the managers or authority figures in these meetings are believed to be medical professionals or possess any medical qualifications.

Often these meetings are thinly veiled as offering workers support with their health but the end result is that the workers can feel demoralised, offended and ultimately discouraged from taking sick leave.

Perhaps you are thinking that these meetings are only for the repeat offenders, those workers who take day after day off, or take every Monday off in a pattern. That’s incorrect. In fact, as one member put it at a call centre where workers are entitled to take 10 days off per year they are flagged and pulled into a meeting for each sick day taken from the 7th day onwards. This is despite being entitled to ten days.

One call centre I visit for Unite gives large yearly bonuses and the talk on the floor is that if a worker takes 7 or more days of sick their bonus is automatically cut. After much investigation it is not at all clear or transparent how exactly sick leave is supposed to affect the bonus but the employer has admitted that “unplanned leave” is a component.

We suspect many call centre managers have a KPI to reduce the amount of sick leave taken amongst staff and therefore employ any means they can think of to reduce this. Unfortunately they seem to be taking the iron fist approach instead of a holistic one. Adding to the already high stress of these workplaces seems unlikely to be helpful.

The effect of this micro-management of people’s lives and health is not only obtrusive and unfair, but it is likely to eventually have the opposite effect than the employers intend. Now our members report that they are taking less sick leave and coming to work sick (and probably contagious!) due to being fearful of the repercussions of taking a day off. Another union member spoke to me of how she could not go to hospital to be with her young son who was an inpatient with serious health problems.

Unite Union will be increasing resources in this area to push back some of these bad practices. In the meantime here are some tips:

– If you or someone you care for is genuinely sick, take sick leave. Any adverse repercussions should be reported to the union immediately so we can deal with them quickly.

– If you are worried you are taking a lot of sick leave contact the union to explore your options and discuss your rights. It is good to do this before you get called into a meeting.

– If you do get called into a ‘welfare meeting’ or a disciplinary meeting regarding ‘excessive sick leave’ speak to your worksite delegate or organiser and do not go in alone.

– You do not need to tell your employer why you are sick. Do not get into the habit of telling them what is wrong with you as it reinforces their belief that they are right to ask you. They are not right, and it is not their business.

– Read your collective employment agreement or “contract” carefully to find out how many paid sick days you are entitled to, and what your rights are regarding providing medical certificates. Under the law your employer can ask you for a certificate after one day off sick if they pay for it or if you have run out of paid leave. However many of our collective agreements are better than the law and only allow your employer to ask for a medical certificate after 3 days off.

– If you or your colleagues feel that you are being treated badly or you have lost out on incentives such as bonuses for taking sick leave you should contact the union immediately.

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