Sick pay and rehabilitation reform plan presented
In January 2002, a committee established by the Swedish government presented an action plan on increased health in working life. The plan contains a number of proposals concerning sick pay and the rehabilitation of workers on sick leave, and is likely to be translated into legislation by the government.
A governmental committee has been looking at the Swedish sickness insurance and rehabilitation system, with a brief to examine the consequences of major increases in the costs of insurance and of the numbers of people taking sick leave since the late 1990s, as well as to come up with ideas for possible changes. On 8 January 2002, the chair of the committee, Jan Rydh, presented its final report, an 'action plan for improved health in working life' (Handlingsplan för ökad hälsa i arbetslivet, SOU 2002:5).
Part of the content of the action plan was already known, following an earlier report from the committee (SE0008160N). This applies especially to a proposal to prolong the period of absence from work during which employers are responsible for paying sick pay (before the insurance system takes over) to 60 days from the present 14 days, which was strongly opposed by the social partners and other parties. However, there are other notable proposals in the action plan, even if they have not given rise to so much discussion.
In Sweden, ill health is a major problem with many workers on long-term sick leave. The number of cases of sick leave running for more than one year increased by 75,000 to 120,000 between 1997 and 2001. The total number of cases of sickness absence in 2001 stood at 800,000. About 400,000 workers are permanently absent from work on an early sickness pension. In other words, 14% of the working age population cannot work because of sickness.
Mr Rydh states in the action plan that efforts should be concentrated on developing means to combat sickness absence at workplace level, including a compulsory occupational health service. The report proposes that a more thorough examination process, involving the employer, should be carried out by public health insurance offices before an employee is considered to be on sick leave. The action plan also proposes a obligation to publicise the level of sickness absence among the workforce in a company's or public authority's annual report. As sickness absence levels vary considerably between different companies, and between different sectors, a compulsory record of sick leave will make it possible to direct efforts to the right workplaces, the report states. Employers with more than a 'normal' number of sickness absence should announce the fact to the Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket), it is proposed.
All employers should be responsible for providing access to occupational health services for their workers, the committee recommends. The County Labour Boards (länsarbetsnämnderna) should be responsible for ensuring that unemployed people receive the necessary occupational health services. The Boards should also have responsibility for assessing the work ability and rehabilitation needs of unemployed people. The action plan also proposes the creation of a 'supplementary labour market' for workers with limited work ability because of sickness. Finally, the action plan proposes that recently launched tripartite talks on the issue of 'increased health in working life' (SE0111108F) should seek to agree on a greater responsibility for employers to create job opportunities for workers with limited work ability .
As mentioned above, the action plan includes the proposal for an extended period of employer's responsibility for paying sick pay, from 14 days to 60 days. Mr Rydh commented in a December 2001 press statement: 'The costs for the employer will not increase. Today the employer already pays all the costs through the payroll tax. Employers at workplaces with a low rate of sick leave pay too much to the sick leave system. The proposal of an extended period means a lower cost for employers with few sick leaves.'
The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) commented that, in spite of many good proposals in the action plan, it still is very negative about 'the idea of 60 days'. This measure would lead to singling out workers who are chronically ill or have long periods of illness, who would thus have difficulties in finding employment, TCO states.
If parliament accepts forthcoming bills from the government based on the committee's proposals, new legislation would come into force in July 2002.