Increased sickness absenteeism fuels debate over sick pay scheme
Sickness absenteeism in Norwegian working life rose by about 10% in 2009 compared to 2008; government expenditure on sickness benefits has thus increased substantially. The Norwegian Prime Minister emphasised in November 2009 the need to find measures by which to reduce sickness absence levels, but stressed that it will not involve abandoning the present scheme which provides full pay compensation during illness.
Rise in sickness absence levels
In the autumn of 2009, it has become evident that the sickness absence rate in Norwegian working life has risen by about 10% from 2008 to 2009. Government expenditure on sick pay has therefore increased dramatically in 2009. As a result, the Norwegian sick pay scheme has once again been put back on the social partner agenda. In a speech to the state sector bargaining party of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO), LO Stat, in November 2009, the Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, voiced his concerns over developments in the sickness absence rate and the need to find measures to deal with it. Prime Minister Stoltenberg emphasised, however, that the government will not alter the present scheme allowing for full pay compensation from day one of sickness absence.
Renegotiation of IA-agreement
Review of measures
In November 2009, the Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Hanne Bjurstrøm, and the social partner organisations agreed to prolong the present agreement for an inclusive working life (Inkluderende arbeidsliv, IA-agreement) to 1 March 2010, in order to give the social partners time to consider new measures. It was originally intended to renegotiate the current agreement in the autumn of 2009 (NO0601101N). The reason why it has taken the parties longer than first anticipated to conclude a new IA-agreement is the sharp increase in sickness absence rates and the increase in government expenditures as a result. Preliminary estimates suggest that sickness absence financed through the public social security system (covering sick leave beyond 16 days) will increase by 10% from 2008 to 2009. The increase in sickness absence also means that government spending on sickness benefits is expected to increase by NOK 4.6 billion (€548.5 million) from 2008 to 2009. This is far more than previously estimated.
No change to existing regulations on sick pay
Prime Minister Stoltenberg insists that no changes will be made to the existing regulations ensuring workers 100% sick pay compensation from the first day of absence from work. Moreover, the financial contribution of the employer, at least if measured as a proportion of the total sick pay costs, will not be altered. The Ministry of Labour and Social Inclusion (Arbeids- og inkluderingsdepartementet), however, has signalled that it wants to consider more closely alternative financial models within the current framework. It could mean that employers must bear increased financial responsibility for sick pay compensation during a worker’s long-term absence. Today, the employer compensates a worker’s pay during the first 16 days of sick leave, while the state provides compensation for the rest of the sick leave period, which may run up to 52 weeks. The ministry has also appointed an expert committee to consider new administrative measures related to, among other things, sick leave practices and the follow-up of absentees. In connection with this work, the social partner organisations are invited to participate in a consultative committee.
Committee to analyse sickness absence in healthcare sector
At the Congress of the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (Fagforbundet), which took place in November 2009, the Prime Minister announced that another committee will be set up to look at sickness absence in the healthcare and social work sector. The committee will examine the extent of causes of and possible measures against health-related absenteeism in this sector. The social partners will be invited to participate in the committee. The healthcare and social work sector is among those sectors with the highest sickness absence rates. The trade unions operating in the sector argue that this is due to low staffing levels and the way the work is organised. They therefore suggest that greater attention should be paid to the relationship between the work environment, workload and sickness absence.
The Norwegian sick pay scheme has regularly been on the political agenda. Until 2001, discussions mainly centred around the introduction of waiting days or reductions in salary compensation (NO9708119N, NO0010109F, NO0109140N). Since 2001, when the so-called IA-agreement was negotiated, greater attention has been given to measures that aim to introduce adjustments to the workplace and work organisation and to facilitate a faster return to employment of absentees (NO0110107F, NO0301104F, NO0308102N).
The IA-agreement has enjoyed strong support from the social partner organisations, and the government’s attempt to change the sick pay scheme in 2006 ended with near full retreat following strong opposition from the social partners (NO0609019I, NO0611029I). Although the government this time around has taken a more cooperative position in relation to the social partners, it is still faced with significant challenges when it comes to finding measures that may contribute to reduce sickness absenteeism but at the same time are acceptable to both the employee and the employer side.
Kristine Nergaard, Fafo