Bid to kill one-day sickies

BY CLAIRE TREVETT AND NATHAN BEAUMONT
Last updated 09:40 19/07/2010
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The so-called "mental health day" could become extinct under law changes allowing bosses who suspect a worker of pulling sickies to demand they front up with proof after only one day.

At present, employers must have reasonable grounds to suspect an illness is not genuine to seek a medical certificate before the worker has had three consecutive days off.

However, the change, announced by the Government at the National Party's annual conference in Auckland yesterday, would allow bosses to require staff to provide proof they are really sick from day one. The employer would have to pay the cost of a doctor's visit.

However, doctors say surgeries may struggle to cope with numbers of workers needing medical certificates and some people may not take a day or two off when they should, spreading sickness.

General Practice New Zealand chairwoman Bev O'Keefe said the change could put pressure on medical centres.

"The issue for general practice is how we accommodate all those people who need to claim medical certificates because they will need to be seen and assessed which means they are going to impact on what is already the heavy workload of general practice.

"One thing we are not happy to do is to furnish medical certificates without seeing people because that's just hearsay."

Another issue was people may go to work ill.

"People may go to work when perhaps it would have been wiser to stay at home."

Dr O'Keefe said another practical issue would be whether people would be able to get the appointment within three days of taking a sick day and may need to take time off work to do it.

"There are some logistic issues around that. but I guess that's something we have to address because if this is going to become the law then we need to make sure that people can in fact get access to the medical certificates that they require when they need them and that is going to put some pressure on the system."

TRIAL PERIOD POLICY EXTENDED

The Government also announced the expansion of the controversial 90-day trial period policy, under which employers can sack workers within their first 90 days of employment, for any reason.

The voluntary scheme will now cover businesses of all sizes.

The reforms, described by Labour as an attack on workers' wages and conditions, attracted hundreds of protesters and unionists to gather outside the National Party's annual conference in Auckland yesterday.

Doors into the SkyCity convention centre were locked for fear that protesters would get inside, after a group led by former Green MP and veteran protester Sue Bradford breached a police cordon to storm a lobby.

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Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said the changes to the Holidays Act were aimed at reducing costs for businesses and encouraging both workers and employers to "follow the rules".

Employment lawyer Peter Cullen said if the employer was paying for the medical check, it would have little impact on a worker's rights.

However, Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said it was a waste of time for both workers and doctors, who would now have to fill out medical certificates for people who did not need medical attention beyond a day in bed to recover.

The Government is also going ahead with its election year policy of allowing workers to cash in up to one week's annual leave if their employer is willing.

Ms Wilkinson said it gave workers more choice in whether they took holidays or the extra cash.

However, Ms Kelly said it would erode the hard-fought for entitlement for four weeks' minimum leave. "Workers short of money will be tempted to cash in such leave when what they really need is a decent pay rise."

The measure was also criticised by Green MP Keith Locke, who said it was "fanciful" for Ms Wilkinson to say the choice would lie with workers. "Employers will make their views very clear to workers what they want."

Under further changes, bosses and workers can also agree to swap a public holiday for another day off.

Ms Wilkinson said it would allow people of different cultures and religions to exchange a recognised public holiday – such as Easter or Christmas – for another day that had more significance to their own culture or religion. That alternative day would effectively become a public holiday for that person and if they had to work it, they would be paid statutory rates.

The changes have been criticised by Labour's Trevor Mallard, who said the package was a "stinging attack on people who work for a living". It would suppress wages and working conditions, including holidays, for all workers regardless of whether they belonged to a union.

The changes are expected to be in place by next year, with ACT agreeing to support the necessary legislation.

- The Dominion Post, with NZPA

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