The first sick day without pay – new proposal for Finland

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The current government of Finland has plans to change the first sick day into a sick day without pay. In this blog post, we’ll discuss this proposal. We also look at new information from Statistics Finland on the frequency of such short sick leaves.

Currently, the Finnish Employment Contracts Act (Chapter 2, Section 11) states that employees are entitled to full pay from the first day onward. However, in certain fields, collective agreements have placed restrictions on this. For example, in the building industry the employee is entitled to full pay from the first sick day onwards if they have been employed continuously for at least 6 months before falling ill.  

In the following, we will first discuss the proposed change a bit more. We then take a look at what we know of sick leaves in Finland. 

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More about the proposal to make the first sick day unpaid

The government is not proposing employees go their first sick day without pay in all circumstances. The first sick day wouldn’t be a day without pay if the sickness lasts for more than five days. The same is true also if the absence was due to an accident at work or an occupational disease. They wouldn’t lose their pay if they stayed home taking care of their sick child. 

When government negotiations were ongoing in early summer this year, one justification given for this change was that smaller companies would be more willing to hire new people. Such a change would lower the risk of employing a person. Should an employer make a wrong hire and employ a person who often takes (unjustified) one-day sick leaves, they wouldn’t have to pay them a salary for that day. Employers would now be more inclined to employ people and the employment rate would go up. This explanation hasn’t gone down all that well across the board.  

Two competing viewpoints

Following social media, it is clear that there are two competing viewpoints on short sick leaves and the reasons for them. 

According to one view, the majority of those taking short sick leaves are bad employees. They take them because they are lazy, are suffering from a hangover (if the sick day falls on a Monday), or are gearing up for the weekend (if the sick day falls on a Friday). Because of this, it’s only right that they shouldn’t get paid. 

The other viewpoint stresses that flu-like illnesses are often short illnesses. Therefore it’s only natural that people take short sick leaves. In these cases, the five-day rule wouldn’t help. Colds rarely require such long absences. In addition, those suffering from, for example, migraines often only need to take a day off. Again, people would be punished for no wrongdoing. Their point is that unjustified sick leave absences are not big enough a problem to warrant this change. Rather, making the first sick day of short illnesses unpaid would cause people to come to work sick and spread diseases.   

The problem is, however, that we really don’t have data to prove either of these viewpoints correct. We do not know how big of a problem unjustified sick leaves are. Nor do we know to what extent this change would cause people to come to work sick. 

We do, however, have new information on the frequency of short sick leaves in Finland. We’ll present that data next. That data at least suggests who would be affected should the government go ahead and make the change.

Some statistics on sick leaves in Finland

According to the 2022 Labor Force Survey of Statistics Finland, just over 7 % of salary earners had taken sick leave from work in 2022. These are self-reported figures. They have been statistically corrected to make them representative of all 15-74-year-old wage and salary earners in Finland. 

Out of these 168 000 wage and salary earners, the majority had been absent for two days or less in a week. Only about 36 % had been on sick leave for the whole workweek or more.  

Women reported being on sick leave for just one day more often than men. Approximately 12 000 men a day off during a single work week in 2022 due to their own illness. The same figure for women was 22 000. 

In 2022, an average female employee had 14 sick days a year. An average male employee had 12 sick days. Those in leadership positions had an average of 4 sick days a year. Specialists averaged 6 sick days per year. These numbers don’t necessarily tell anything about employees’ health. Rather, the differences most likely indicate the possibility of working remotely from home while feeling under the weather. As Heikura and Taskinen from Statistic Finland point out, these differences might also indicate differing pressures to work while sick. 

Statistics Finland also looked at sick leave frequencies in different occupations. They focused on larger occupational groups where sick leave days per employee totaled more than 18 a year. The occupational group with the most sick days per year was those working in close contact with patients or clients in the healthcare industry. These include nurses’ aides and home healthcare workers.

Other groups in the top ten are, for example, educators, childcare workers, nurses, and specific professions in the building industry. 

The effects of the proposal to make employees go the first sick day without pay

As Tuomo Heikura and Pertti Taskinen point out, whether an employee would really have to go the first sick day without pay would depend on their collective agreement and local agreements. 

As we have mentioned before, about 89 % of employment relationships in Finland fall under one collective agreement or another. The law sets the basic premises of Finnish employment relationships. Collective agreements and local agreements, however, can always set better conditions for employees. Most likely collective agreements would continue to give employees full pay also for the first sick day. 

They point out that should this change be adopted into law, it would affect those employees most severely whose employment relationship does not fall under collective agreements.

If we didn’t have these agreements, such a change would impact certain occupations disproportionately. In occupations where remote work or working from home is an option, the employee can keep working from home while sick with the flu. They wouldn’t have to call it a sick day. In occupations where this is not possible (healthcare workers, educators, builders), a short flu would automatically mean a reduction in pay. Those already better off wouldn’t feel a similar hit in their pocketbooks.  Collective bargaining power can shield employees from the effects of this. But can and will it hide from view the underlying inequality?  

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