I saw a story in the San Jose Mercury News that I thought raised an interesting question about sick leave, one worth discussing here.
As it turns out, all the details of the specific case reported in the article sort of obscure the general question that it initially raised for me. But since I’m still interested in discussing the more general problem, here’s a poll to tweak your intuitions.
The question that the headline and first two paragraphs of the article raised for me was about the ethical bounds of one’s professional activities while on paid sick leave.
The point of paid sick leave, one would think, is to recognize that there are times when you are too sick to work (and it is brutally hard to schedule these intervals in advance), and that even when you’re too sick to work you still have to pay rent or mortgage, and eat, and maybe even handle the deductible and co-pay to see your physician. It’s an institutional recognition that personnel are not pieces of office equipment to be discarded and replaced when they jam. This isn’t pure kindness on the employer’s end of things; training new personnel takes time and resources, maybe more than you’d expend giving an employee paid sick leave and letting hi or her recover.
But, can your employer reasonably follow Mom’s lead and impose a policy of “Too Sick For School Is Too Sick For Scouts”? Can your employer ethically require that, if you’re collecting sick-pay, you cannot concurrently perform any other work?
Does it matter if the other work you might want to perform is for the employer or for some other employer? (Let’s say, for example, that you’re too sick to teach, but your department could use your input on its program review? Or that you’re too sick to be in the lab, but you’re a member of a student’s dissertation committee and he would appreciate your comments on the chapters he has drafted so far?)
Does it make a difference if the other work you might want to do is paid or unpaid?
Does it make a difference if your sick-pay is substantially less than the paycheck you’d be getting if you weren’t too sick to work?
Does it make a difference if the other work you might want to do is substantially different from the job for which you’re on sick leave? (Maybe your day job is being the Dean of a college and the work you’re contemplating doing during your sick leave is teaching a few hours of piano lessons a week in your home. Maybe your day job is being a PI and you want to coach your 7-year-old’s soccer team, for free.)
I’d love to regard this as a purely hypothetical cluster of questions, but the reality is that being an able-bodied member of the workforce is not a permanent position. Accidents happen. Bodies fail, even the well-rested, well-exercised ones that have benefitted from healthy diets. We or our close colleagues might need paid sick leave, even in a budgetary climate where there are lots of other uses to which we could put that money.
Given the ongoing California bugetpocalypse, I have a bit of a hair-trigger when it comes to goldbricking, double-dipping, and malingering on someone else’s dime — especially when that’s a dime the rest of us don’t have to get the job done.
However, I’m also hesitant to conclude (from first principles or less) that health is a binary state, that you’re either too sick to do any work or you should bloody well get back to your desk, or that limited amounts of work-like activity couldn’t actually help one recover faster and better. Nor, having not gone on paid sick leave, do I want to assume that sick-pay in the same amount as one’s regular salary is necessarily sufficient to address one’s financial needs while ill.
Of course, there’s a way in which pondering the ethics of this may be pointless — your employer probably has a policy covering paid sick leave (assuming you have an employer that offers paid sick leave), and you pretty much have to live within that policy if you want to keep your job.
But someone makes these policies, and updates them from time to time. It might be nice if what such policies permit and forbid aligned with what ethics permits and forbids.
Tell me what you think in the comments, especially if you or someone close to you has dealt with sick leave.
(In case you’re interested in the details of the real case discussed in the article, we’re looking at:
- An administrator who has, over the course of three months, collected sick pay that amounts to approximately one quarter of the annual salary she would be receiving at her administrative job;
- who was concurrently teaching a single course (meeting twice a week for three hours per class meeting — but don’t forget time for prep and grading!) for one academic quarter in a neighboring community college district;
- who was, by the way, originally hired as an executive assistant by the college’s Chancellor, who is also her live-in partner, before being promoted to this administrative post;
- and who apparently, over the last several years accompanied the Chancellor on “18 business trips … to places such as El Salvador, Scotland and West Palm Beach — paid with district credit cards”.
The kicker is that the administrator on sick leave is her community college district’s “executive director of institutional effectiveness”.