£1.7 million sick note headache for Comhairle

Staff sickness absences cost the Comhairle over �1,760,000 in 2011/2012.
Staff sickness absences cost the Comhairle over �1,760,000 in 2011/2012.

NEARLY one third – £1,769,083 – of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s required budget cuts has been paid out to staff sickness over the past financial year.

With flu season arrived and in a week when local hospital wards were closed by norovirus outbreaks, as the council struggles to cut £5.35million from its 2013/15 budget the Gazette highlights the hidden cost of sickness absence.

Local authority 2011/2012 figures detail a total of 18,714 sickness absence days clocked up by the Comhairle’s 1,395 FTE employees.

Over the same period the council’s 395 FTE Teachers recorded 3,066 absence days.

This resulted in a loss of six percent of council employee working days (an average two and a half weeks per worker) and four percent of Teacher working days (average week and a half per Teacher) - at a cost to the public purse of nearly £2million.

Commenting on problems caused by staff sickness within the daily work of a local authority, Comhairle Leader Angus Campbell said: “It just makes it even more difficult to maintain services, especially when the services are required on a daily basis such as Home Helps. We’re finding difficulties just now trying to cover the Home Help service for example.

“It is undoubtedly a cost, especially for a small council where the cost impacts much more as changes can have a proportional effect quite quickly.

“We have to have a fair and sympathetic system of sickness cover, but at the same we have to ensure services are maintained.”

In line with many other UK councils and public bodies such as health boards, a Comhairle employee who has worked with the authority for five years or over is entitled to 26 weeks sickness on full pay, followed by a further 26 weeks on half pay.

For Teachers who have been in Comhairle employment for five years or over, the entitlement is six months sickness at full pay and six months at half pay.

Yet with nearly 20,000 working days lost in one year the cost of staff sickness absence is one financial burden that must be considered when establishing council budgets.

And it appears a high price when faced with the prospective cuts to council services and facilities due to be implemented in February 2013.

If the cost of staff sickness finances were cut by around a third, for example, the funds would be enough to cover Itinerant teacher staffing (£294,000), as well as both the Barra and Benbecula air service (£113,000) and the Stornoway to Benbecula air service (£268,000).

Cllr Campbell commented: “This is part of what we have to do [when considering budgets] and we have to make sure that sickness levels are kept low.”

A Comhairle spokesman divulged that there are ‘a number of new initiatives due to be put in place in 2013’ in relation to staff sickness, and Mr Campbell added: “I think next year right across the whole of Scotland, with COSLA, staff sickness will be looked at to make sure it’s managed in a sympathetic way, but also to look at ways of minimising staff sickness.”

The council spokesman expanded: “The Comhairle has policies to support and address sickness absence and has an Occupational Health service in place.”

He added: “The main priority is for the Comhairle to maintain service/cover. Staff sickness can impact upon other employees and the Comhairle endorses the COSLA position that – ‘Attendance is a vital factor in the effective and efficient operation of local authority services’.”