Richmond Hill, Ont., has a new extended sick leave management program—one that’s equitable to all employees

Debra Wight, manager of employee health, safety and benefits for the municipality of Richmond Hill, Ont., has definitely followed one rule from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: play fair.

For the last 15 years, absenteeism among Richmond Hill’s employees has been substantially below the national average for public sector employers. In 2012, the municipality lost 7.33 days per full-time employee to absenteeism, compared with the national average of 12.4 days per employee, according to Statistics Canada.

Still, Wight saw room for improvement. Prior to 2013, she admits Richmond Hill had an “ad hoc approach” to employees’ extended sick absences. “Working collectively with our employees and partners created a great opportunity to implement a fair and consistent approach to disability management across the organization,” says Wight. “Our new extended sick leave management program allows us to reinvest our time and assist in providing more support to employees while they’re off work.”

Richmond Hill’s sick leave benefits are generous. Its long-term disability (LTD) waiting period is 85 workdays. Employees can receive up to 100% of their full pay for the first 75 days and then, depending on their collective agreement and their absence history, can receive another 10 days of pay at either 75% or 100%.

“Without having any checks and balances in the system, it could be open for someone who may not have a legitimate claim to be able to abuse the system,” Wight says. “How do we know that folks who are off work for 75 days need to be off work for that length of time?”

Supporting employees upon return to work was another issue. “It was kind of hit and miss,” she explains, adding that there was no consistency in the approach to employees’ requests for modified work or workplace accommodations.

Support at the Centre
Richmond Hill sent out a request for quotation for short-term disability (STD) services to nine different organizations. The procurement team selected Morneau Shepell. “We started by implementing an extended sick leave policy, delivering a recovery-focused case management program and orienting supervisors to the impact of their role in the process,” says Kristen Coady, director, organizational health solutions, with Morneau Shepell. “This provided Richmond Hill with a framework for consistent and supportive case management.” The municipality also had to ensure that the STD program and its LTD—which Sun Life Financial provides—were integrated. Having the providers work together was crucial. “We collaborated extensively to share information, policies and procedures,” says Lori Casselman, assistant vice-president, practice excellence & innovation, group life & disability, with Sun Life Financial Canada. “We wanted to ensure that the new STD program was seamless to the employees—both from a communication and support perspective.”

On March 1, 2013, Richmond Hill did a test launch, looking at the effectiveness of the program and how staff might respond before its official launch on Nov. 1, 2013. Employees received a one-page letter with their pay stubs to explain the new program and its benefits. There were also five one-hour-long information sessions offered for supervisors and three for employees.

Town Hall
Planning for and delivering the employee sessions was challenging. “Based on prior experience, we knew we needed to be careful, as there were some unionized employees who were not receptive to change and sensitive when it came to the privacy of their medical information,” Wight explains.

At one session, she shared the story of an employee who, though ready to come back to work physically was not ready mentally. The employee chose to stay off work longer and, as a result, was disciplined for his actions. “I know that, had we had this program in place several years ago, that type of issue would not have happened—because we would have recognized that treatment was needed early in the absence, and there would have been proper support offered,” Wight adds.

Sharing this story helped the municipality’s case: what started out as defensiveness among employees changed to collective understanding.

Wight says the extended sick leave management program applies to most of the municipality’s employees. Once an employee has been off work for 10 consecutive days, the supervisor contacts Wight, who herself will then reach out to the employee. Wight tells the employee if he or she meets the criteria for referring the file to Morneau Shepell. She also tells the employee to call with any problems and to maintain contact with his or her supervisor. Morneau calls the employee, explaining the support available, and updates Richmond Hill frequently on the employee’s status and when he or she is ready to return to modified work. At that point, “we sit with the employee and the supervisor and collaboratively develop the return-to-work program,” says Wight. The new program also addresses employees who want to return to work before they’re really able to do so, ensuring that there is medical clearance from a doctor. “Most of our employees want to come back too soon,” Wight explains. “They have major heart repairs and want to come back to work in two weeks!”

If an employee won’t co-operate with the program or is not considered to be totally disabled, Richmond Hill won’t pay for that employee’s sick time. “We’ve run into it a couple of times,” says Wight. For example, one employee used sick time to be off work to care for an ill family member. “Now, under this new program, an employee in this situation will only be able to receive sick pay if they meet the criteria for total disability.”

However, Wight says Richmond Hill tries to support employees in these situations—for instance, working with payroll to see if the employee has remaining vacation days. “We’re trying to be creative so that we’re still meeting the need and the employee sees us as a supportive employer,” she adds.

Consistency Is Key
Before the new program, absences weren’t adjudicated: supervisors weren’t required to notify HR about employees’ absences, so HR didn’t know about some of them, says Wight. Now there is improved communication between the employee and HR, the employee and the supervisor, and the employee and Morneau Shepell.

Another great benefit of the new program, according to Wight, is its consistent approach. “Everybody’s treated the same.”

Although Richmond Hill expects to have more definitive data by early Q2, since the test launch was completed, employees have shared with Wight that the program is exactly what they need. Supervisors are happy, too.

“They feel much more confident now with the program because they’re able to get the right information at the right time pertaining to their employee,” Wight explains. “They feel like they’re making a difference.”

Q&A

Debra Wight outlines Richmond Hill’s future goals

What are the main objectives of the extended sick leave management program? First, to provide support in the early days—even before an employee is going off [on leave]. If we’re starting to see that a person needs extra support, we’re trying to provide that. And that’s going to be part of our training protocol for 2014. We want this to be a holistic program, so we don’t want to be looking at [just] physical health; we want to be looking at mental health as well. We want to make sure that it’s a well-rounded program.

And second, it’s about treating your employees well. We say to people, ‘We need to understand why you’re off—not because we want to penalize you in any way, but so that we can support you during your absence and when you’re ready to return to the workplace.’

What are the next steps?

We will be looking at developing FAQs that we can send out to our employees, which will help us to really be clear about the program and provide employees with an overview of the services that they will continue to get from HR, some of the questions that weren’t answered right away and some of the materials that were provided with Morneau Shepell’s assistance.

We’re also having a mental health training session for our people leaders, and that will help to reinforce what to look for—so that they’ll say, ‘I’ve noticed a change in productivity: [these employees are] coming in late, they’re absent a bit more…I’m going to sit down and have a conversation with them, find out what’s going on [and] offer whatever support we can.’

That really helps employees to get treatment early, to minimize the time off. And it provides us with opportunities to do stay-at-work plans—or simply to remind employees that they matter.

Brooke Smith is managing editor of Benefits Canada.

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Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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