THE shocking scale of sick leave in our local authorities can be revealed today, with workers in some councils taking almost three weeks off every year through illness.
The Irish Independent can reveal that absenteeism rates in city and county councils are running at an average of more than two weeks -- almost twice that of the private sector.
And the problem has been getting steadily worse.
The average amount of sick leave taken across the country's 34 city and county councils is 11.5 days.
But staff in Sligo County Council take an average of 15 days -- or three weeks -- while workers in Kildare and Wexford are taking 14.5 days.
The revelation comes just weeks after Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin promised a major crackdown in the Budget on absenteeism in the public sector.
He said some state employees felt sick leave was an "entitlement" to be taken regardless of whether or not they were ill.
The problem has grown worse. Just 3pc of working days were lost in 2004, but this has since increased to 4.5pc -- a 50pc hike.
The high rate has knock-on financial effects for authorities that are already struggling to provide essential services.
Other employees are forced to take on additional work because their colleagues are missing.
Overtime payments can arise and replacement workers must be recruited because of long-term illness.
The findings are contained in the 'Service Indicators in Local Authorities 2010' report obtained by the Irish Independent.
It compares the performance of each council across a range of areas, including absenteeism, and found:
- Almost one-in-20 working days (4.5pc) in each local authority is lost through illness. This is the equivalent of 11.5 days a year. The private sector average is six days.
- But workers in three councils -- Sligo, Kildare and Wexford -- take almost 15 days each.
- The lowest rate is in Wicklow and Clare county councils with an average of eight days.
- Almost 350,000 days were 'lost' to illness in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Employers' group IBEC said the high rate was because a culture had arisen in some areas where people believed they were entitled to take sick leave.
"I do think there is a bit of an issue, especially where a culture has developed where absences are not actively managed," director Brendan McGinty said.
"The problem is that over time, a pattern develops and people feel they can take several weeks of sick leave and that breeds a culture of entitlement. That's not sustainable at any time, especially not in the current climate."
All council workers are entitled to a minimum of 20 working days' annual leave, but most are entitled to more.
Sickness policies are different in each council. Generally, councils allow workers to take two days' sick leave without a doctor's cert.
The total number of 'uncertified' sick days allowed by councils over a year varies from seven in some local authorities to five in others.
Local authority managers acknowledge there is a problem. Guidance on managing sick leave in one council states that staff cannot take uncertified sick leave "on a Friday followed by a Monday, or in the case of bank holiday weekends, a Friday followed by a Tuesday".
It adds that uncertified sick leave cannot be taken immediately before or after annual leave, suggesting that employees were using sick leave to extend their holidays.
The problem is compounded by a lack of clear policies, with guidelines supposed to be in place last April to deal with sickness under the terms of the Croke Park Agreement.
The action plan explicitly states: "Better management of sick leave, together with the uniform application of sick leave arrangements and enhanced attendance management policy across the (local authority) sector. This will include an examination of the current uncertified sick leave arrangement."
The idea was to have a 'one-size-fits-all' sickness policy, which would result in 'increased productivity'.
The new arrangements are not yet in place, the Department of the Environment confirmed last night.
The Service Indicators report said it was important to note that the greatest amount of sick leave was "legitimate and unavoidable".
A 2009 report on sickness in the civil service from the Comptroller and Auditor General noted that most sick leave was warranted, and that management could only intervene in cases of "excessive and unwarranted absences".
Sligo County Council last night said it had reduced absenteeism levels by 8pc between 2009 and 2010.
Wicklow County Council, one of the best-performing counties, said absenteeism levels were kept to a minimum through a "strict adherence" to an attendance policy.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform also said that up to €500m was being lost every year because of absenteeism.
Secretary general Robert Watt told the Dail Public Accounts Committee earlier this month that this related not only to the payment of salary while someone was on sick leave, but also to the cost for substitute workers.