Sick

Northeastern University, my employer, recently reduced my sick time from 66 days per year to 12, effective January 1 2021. The messaging: “In setting the new parameters, HR found that, on average, employees take 5 sick days per year and that only 5% of employees use more than 9 days.”

I am one of the 5%–I’m a parent and someone who lives with chronic illnesses. 

“Do you have a 7:30 AM or a 4:30 PM appointment available?” has been a mantra for all of my working life.  Early on in my career, when I had limited sick time and positions that required my physical presence, I got used to holding each hour of sick time like a precious jewel. If I had a 7:30 AM appointment, I could usually make it in by 9:00, and if I had a 4:00 PM appointment and a flexible manager, I could come into work at 6:00 and not have to use (“waste” is actually the term I used, which in retrospect is problematic!) any of my time.  I did this because inevitably, I had appointments that required sick time, either because I couldn’t see/walk/speak when they were over, or because they were with doctors with such tight schedules that they couldn’t accommodate my early/late needs. 

The casual observer wouldn’t know that I had health challenges. I’m a valued leader both in my workplace and in my field. I always show up. But I have a minimum of 22 doctor appointments per year–47 when I was in regular therapy.  I have two fairly healthy children, (4 additional doctor/dentist visits), a grand total of 51 doctor visits in any given year. To be clear, I hate the fact that medical care takes up such a large percentage of my life. But this is the one way I can continue to stay “well.”

And there are the things that just “happen.” Plantar fasciitis (2x/ diagnose 2x/week PT, 7:30 appointments x 6 weeks), broken bone (7 hours in the ER and 6x ortho +PT), kid had a non-serious health challenge (20x/year ped visits), and new school COVID restrictions require BOTH kids home if one has a sniffle (~6/year)–we used to keep them home only if they had a fever (~2-3/year).

When I started at Northeastern in 2014, I was amazed at the sick policy– employees received 22 days on day 1 with increases by longevity until 66. I thought that it was the sign of an organization that really cared for its more vulnerable employees.  Even someone like me wouldn’t run out! I still asked for 7:30 and 4:40 appointments because I love my job and want to be as present as possible, but I allowed myself to take the occasional day off to stay home with a cold or a few hours to care for a sick kid before parking them in front of the computer with a bowl of cereal so that I could work. I felt safe because if one of my chronic illnesses required serious downtime or even more doctor appointments, I would have plenty available.

In one of the forums where folks were discussing this change, an astute observer noted, “This is a solution in need of a problem.” Was the problem the amount of sick time someone like me takes? HR hopes that its expanded leave policy (26 paid weeks for medical leave and 12 paid weeks to care for family after 7 days unpaid) will make up for such a drastic reduction in sick time.  “Depending on your situation, there are pluses and minuses to this change in sick time policy.”  For folks like me whose chronic illnesses require us to take regular sick time in order to keep ourselves and/or those in our care healthy and on track, this policy feels draconian, and I’m disappointed that HR enacted this blanket policy without finding out how it might affect the community’s most physically fragile. 

Please note: this blog post, and this blog is mine and represents only my own, ideas, opinions as a human being and not as a representative of Unviersity in any way.

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