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NPO Workers Taking More Unscheduled Days Off

By Jeff Berger - January 1, 2001

Workers at nonprofits are racking-up more unscheduled absences than their for-profit counterparts. While the overall rate of workforce unscheduled absences dropped last year, to 2.1 percent, the number of unexcused absences at nonprofits hit approximately 2.8 percent.

According to yearly studies of the health, education and government sectors of the United States workforce conducted by Riverwoods, Ill.-based CCH Incorporated, while the 2.8 percent rate of absenteeism in 2000 is an improvement compared to 1999’s 3.6 percent, progressive increases from 1997, with 2.6 percent, and 1998, at 2.7 percent, do indicate an alarming trend that is not alleviating.

Of those surveyed, 41 percent considered unscheduled absenteeism to be a serious problem.

Lisa Franke, a human resources law analyst at CCH who co-authored the study said, "Unscheduled absences are very costly. On average they cost very small organizations about $10,000 a year and larger organizations about $3.3 million."

For all categories of employees, the CCH study came up with a breakdown of their reasons for their unscheduled absences in 2000:

• Illness – 40%

• Family Issues – 21%

• Personal Needs – 20%

• Entitlement Mentality – 14%

• Stress – 5%

In the university/education area, full time employees were granted an average 13 sick days and used approximately nine of them. In the health care area, full time employees received an average eight sick days and used approximately 4.5 days.

CCH maintained that the average 11.97 sick days granted by nonprofits in 1999 is just about equal to 2000’s count of 11.47 days, while 1999’s six sick days used by the average employee at nonprofits is in line with 2000’s 6.5 days used.

A change in an employee’s "work-life" at a nonprofit could bring that person’s on-the-job presence up to parity with peers at for-profits, who are increasingly going to work on-time and on schedule. Work-life is a human resources buzzword for the concept of balancing an employee’s work time and personal life.

Some organizations in the nonprofit field are taking positive action that may be stabilizing the situation. Flextime programs are key to ongoing human resources efforts at such nonprofits as the American Institute for Cancer Research, the United Jewish Communities, and March of Dimes.

At the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., "It is always a challenge to minimize unscheduled leave," said John McIlveen, director of Human Resources/Administration.

"We have a very generous policy of 12 sick days a year, as we don’t have short-term disability. We allow our employees to accrue these 12 days from year-to-year up to 66 business days or the equivalent of three months of disability," he said.

The average person uses six days or less per year for sick time, McIlveen said. "So, you have some employees who may use their sick time with or without notice for personal or mental health reasons. The challenge is how to reduce the amount of sick time an employee uses. One possibility for the future would be to include short-term disability as a benefit, and thus reduce the amount of sick days per year."

Another possibility, continued McIlveen, "is to move to a paid time off (PTO) plan." Rather than having personal days, holidays, vacation days, and sick days, you combine all those days into a package of days per year. This rewards people who don’t take sick days and lose them. It reduces the number of people who call in sick and who may or may not be ill.

He explained that at a nonprofit where he’s worked previously, the employees could carry over 10 days of that lump sum per year, and bank up to 45 days. But, only 20 days were paid out in case of termination or resignation.

McIlveen said, "This empowers people to better manage their time and reduces unexpected absences that effect the work environment. It may, however, take a change in the culture of the organization to do this. Going to a PTO plan might ultimately see a reduction of sick days offered – usually down to six days a year."

CCH’s survey found that PTO programs, also known as paid leave banks, continue to be seen by human resource professionals as the most effective absence control program. Next popular were no-fault systems that limit the number of unscheduled absences allowed regardless of circumstances.

Buy back programs, where employees are compensated for the allotted time off that they do not use, were also considered effective at most of the companies surveyed.

Gloria Nilsen, director of human resources at United Jewish Communities in New York City, explained, "In terms of the flextime, our organization has been using this concept effectively since 1989 and we wouldn’t have it any other way. This helps employees balance work and family and increases productivity. We offer this openly to all employees. Most typically, an employee can work at home three of five days a week, or work at home on the fifth day, or work four days in the office and be free of the fifth day."

Nilsen said, "It does take a certain kind of employer/employee relationship, mostly involving trust and mutual respect, to make it work. There can be abuse of this honor system, and thus some individual arrangements have to be ended. But that is few and far between. It is a valuable tool to keep an important segment of the workforce working for you. It improves productivity, morale, and reduces stress and wear and tear on the family."

UJC offers more than just flextime for the good of the employee. "We offer a generous vacation and holiday calendar so that people have time to enjoy themselves and their families," maintained Nilsen.

"We also have company picnics for the staff and their families on a weekday. We offer learning opportunities and programs in the office. One of these is a tutorial program, focused on topics of such different celebrations and occasions ranging from the Jewish holidays to Martin Luther King Day, so that all our employees are familiar with the cultures they are dealing with. This culture, at the organization, also helps cut down on absences."

According to Rick Martino, vice president of human resources at the national office of the March of Dimes in White Plains, N.Y., the benefits include personal days (four each year), a holiday schedule, vacation plan, and sick time with carryover that is accrued based on an employee’s years of service and flextime.

"We certainly don’t have any evidence that there are any increases in unexplained absences among employees," said Martino, "but, to be competitive in the current workplace, we have a flextime policy that helps our employees meet their personal needs – and us to meet our business needs. I came from IBM, with 308,000 employees, and there has been for a number of years a focus on flexible work schedules for work-life balance. So we have, at the March of Dimes, instituted a similar focus on work-life balance."

Martino said, "There is very positive feedback on the program from all levels of management and employees. There is a slight learning curve in the adapting to these new programs for both employees and management.

The CCH survey found that, on average, companies use 3.4 work-life programs. Of the companies surveyed: 73 percent offered an employee assistance program; 66 percent permitted flexible scheduling; 41 percent had wellness programs; 28 percent offered compressed work weeks; and 25 percent utilized job sharing.

Inflexible working

Still, these three organizations may be the exception to the rule–and a recent study has found there is some disparity between for-profits and nonprofits when it comes to unscheduled employee absences.

CCH’s survey showed nonprofits are lagging behind attendance improvements in other corporate environments. Franke maintained that one has to look at the big picture of the entire working environment to size up just how the nonprofit segment is doing.

"Why the rate might be higher at nonprofits is that nonprofits may be a little slower in developing the progressive programs that allow employees the ability to balance work and personal demands," said CCH’s Franke.

The current labor market, Franke added, "is very tight and it is difficult to retain quality employees as the pay at nonprofits tends to lag for-profit companies. So, developing effective work-life programs is one way, outside of raising pay, to increase retention at nonprofits. Nonprofit organizations tend to operate with very lean staff. When someone doesn’t show up for work it has a great impact. The work isn’t going to get done."


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