Adventures in Ethics and Science

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”.

Effectiveness indeed!)

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    July 6, 2010

    Like it or not “sick pay” is used by many workplaces as just another form of compensation. It can be inflexible for the really and seriously sick, sometimes is used in a global “flex time off” type of pool and can be forced to be expended as maternity leave.

    all of this means that ethical questions are irrelevant. All that matters are the rules at the workplace in question and what the employee is *permitted* to do.

    The question at hand in this particular case seems to be the nepotism, anyway. Would it be such a kerfuffle absent that?

  2. #2 Helen Huntingdon
    July 6, 2010

    It would be nice to presume that she was too ill to perform both jobs, but not too ill to perform one, and made an informed judgment about which was more urgent.

    But the nepotism and the trips already put her administrator job in a questionable light. If not dishonest, it was certainly unwise not to prioritize the administrator job over the other.

  3. #3 Jim tThomerson
    July 6, 2010

    I have been fortunate to be sick when the university was not in session or when I was on sabbatical. Therefore I collected my sick leave pay when I retired, and upped my retirement benefits. A cousin took sick leave to help care for my son who was in a serious accident. I’m OK with that, ethical or not.

  4. #4 Big Blue
    July 6, 2010

    Where I work, we technically have infinite sick leave.

    In practice, this is sick leave until you qualify for disability SSI, and then you begin collecting on disability insurance. The company buys a group insurance policy, which employees pay into (something like $1/month out of our paychecks pre-tax, nothing onerous). When you are sick for more than 3 days, the HR software automatically clicks your payroll over to come from this insurance money. After a few weeks, you are considered to be on “short term disability,” at which point your pay may be reduced somewhat if you have not bought an inexpensive policy to cover the remainder; at six months with no hope of recovery enough to do some job for the company (perhaps not your original job, but one with the same pay), you are considered to be disabled and HR works with you to arrange SSI and so forth.

    People imagine that the system is rife with abuse and that all employees will take advantage given the chance. This does not in fact happen, because we have metrics by which people are scored on their reviews. If a department is unable to perform some function, year after year, for any reason, they get the axe. Most people want to be at work, because it’s the only way you can make your metrics.

    Is it easier to teach community college 101 classes than to do her regular job? I don’t know, I know people on SSI do get easy jobs under the table because there’s not really a legal status of 75% disabled. I find it hard to believe her partner couldn’t find something less strenuous to do or figure out how she could work from home.

  5. #5 Brian York
    July 6, 2010

    I would add one other category to the poll (although it doesn’t seem applicable to the particular case under discussion) — the state of possibly not being too physically sick to do any work, but having been diagnosed as having some infectious condition (or made a reasonable self-diagnosis, e.g. of strongly influenza-like symptoms during flu season), and staying home because exposing yourself to colleagues and co-workers is likely to cause more lost work than anything you could get done during that day. I know that my own workplace has an informal policy, especially during winter months, of “if you feel like you’re getting sick, your co-workers would probably appreciate not sharing the air with your germs”, and I don’t see that as a bad idea (provided of course that you have sufficient paid sick leave to use in this manner).

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    July 6, 2010

    Like DrugMonkey I noticed the nepotism angle, and there is also the tidbit about the 18 business trips (some to foreign destinations) she took with her SO, the Chancellor. Whether the latter is truly an ethical violation or thrown in as a bonus detail I can’t say (your links to the SJMN story are broken), but it conveys the impression that this couple is living large on someone else’s dime. The extensive travel in addition to the nepotism fuels the impression that shenanigans are occurring.

    Unlike DM, I see some definite ethics issues here–just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. If she’s collecting 1/4 of her annual salary in a three-month period from sick leave alone, that implies she isn’t actually working (at least not very much) at her administrative job. There may be legitimate reasons for this: maternity leave, disability, or chronic illness. None of these is compatible with teaching a course that has a physical meeting place, although if she is only present by videoconference it might be legit.

  7. #7 Katherine
    July 6, 2010

    Depends on the type of sickness. Anything that doesn’t affect your ability to do your job but prevents you from being at work (broken bones, a mild but highly contagious illness), if your job(s) involve(s) work you could do at home you should be working from home, though probably with a lighter workload to ensure you have sufficient energy to recover. This wouldn’t give you any real extra spare time to spend on stuff you wouldn’t normally do during a work day though.

    If your ability to do your job is not affected but you cannot work from home, then I think it’s great if you do volunteer work or other work while you are sick, rather than treating it as a free vacation (I’d treat it as a free vacation ;) I’m not really sure any criticism can be levelled at you legitimately in this instance no matter what you do with your time.

    If your ability to do your job is affected, you’ll need a much lower workload (or a zero workload) and anything you manage to do in your spare time should be none of your employer’s business, as long as it doesn’t unduly negatively affect your recovery time.

    If it’s not something you can recover from, the same comments apply, except you should have a lot more lieu regarding your spare time – if you could get into trouble for doing something that affects your ability to work the next day, you might be restricted from doing *anything* other than eating and sleeping in your spare time, and sometimes not even those, from what I read on blogs by disabled people.

    I think it is LESS ethical to keep coming to work while you are contagious just because you can’t work from home but are able to do your work. I don’t want your diseases. But then here it is either mandatory or customary to have paid sick leave.

    The specific case you point out hurts my head.

  8. #8 Carrie
    July 6, 2010

    I agree with Katherine, in principle. However, at my company, if you are out on short term disibility (leave > 5 days), you canNOT do ANY work, even if you theoretically could. One of my coworkers broke his leg, badly. He was on ‘sick leave’ for 5 weeks because he was essentially immobile. He easily could have worked from home, at least half time, during that time period, but the insurance rules would not let him. He needed to either be 100% non-working or 100% working. Couldn’t do ‘partial’ disability….

  9. #9 Rob Knop
    July 6, 2010

    This specific case sounds very fishy.

    However, if you’re a teacher, I’d point out another reason not to come in on sick leave: if you have a communicable disease, you have a responsibility to stay home rather than come in and infect all of your colleagues and students. You may well be feeling up to doing grading, doing research, doing advising and such that can be done without personal contact. But it’s still valid to take the sick days and not come in.

  10. #10 Grant
    July 7, 2010

    This is off-topic, but spare a thought for people who are self-employed. For us, there is no such thing a “sick leave”, there is just unable to work! (I’m an independent computational biologist.)

  11. #11 Mara
    July 7, 2010

    Yeah, freelancers need love (and sick leave) too!

    Seriously, I’m a work-at-home mom who doesn’t have sick leave from either my paying work or my unpaid work. When I was pregnant, I was too sick to be able to do paying work, because if I tried to read a computer screen, I would throw up…but I still had to spend 10 hours a day dealing with a rambunctious older child. ::snort::

    The first time I was pregnant, I ended up on bed rest for 3 months. In that case, I would have been delighted to do some work from home, but I was also not allowed to work part-time because of the rules.

    Somehow the systems all seem very screwed up.

  12. #12 prosaica
    July 8, 2010

    In most of Europe paid sick leave is available to all salaried workers. Usually there are serious controls: in my country you need a medical certificate, and you have to stay home so that a doctor from the employer can come and check.
    I got varicella as a grownup, and after 3 days I was already feeling more or less ok; however it was illegal for me to get out of the house as long as I was infectitious, so I had a colleague invigilate my written test and bring it home to me to grade. You can’t make a (reasonable) law like that if you do not have paid leave.
    Some people cheat on the system. Some also cheat by going to work and spending their time drinking coffee and looking out of the window.

  13. #13 steve
    July 9, 2010

    You are conflating management of staff and policy. It is bad management to “manage” aberrant individuals by policy change. Individuals that are abusing a system need to be managed under appropriate policy as an individual. From my experience as a workplace trade union representative mangers would rather shirk their responsibility when it comes to managing these individuals and critise a policy as it is easier.

    The case discussed looks like it may be abuse and potentially disciplinary, which would incidentally at least give the individual a chance to defend their conduct.

    Sick presence has a considerable if not greater cost that sick absence. Its just not easily quantifyable so gets ignored by the bean counters.

  14. #14 JIA
    July 9, 2010

    My understanding of the rule “no work for your employer while on disability leave” is that it protects the employee. If you are disabled to the point of being unable to perform PART of your duties, but your employer is still allowed to give you SOME work to do, then there could exist a situation where the company puts pressure on you to do more, work longer, etc., potentially compromising your health further. And, this can open the company up to a lawsuit. It’s easier for all concerned to stay out of that grey area.

    In the state of CA, pregnancy and maternity leaves are “disability” leaves. My employer enforced a strict “no work” policy during that time, and frankly, I appreciated it. What’s to stop a supervisor with no kids, who doesn’t get it, from asking a new parent to “just help out a little from home”? And how can the employee say no, without potentially compromising their relationship with their boss, who thinks the new parent is sort of on vacation?

    Best if it’s just understood that disability leave is protected.

  15. #15 DerelictHat
    July 12, 2010

    One point I’d like to raise is also mental health. Sometimes I need to take a day so I don’t go stark raving mad, whether due to outside stressors or just a build-up of pressure, so to speak. I use paid sick leave for these days, and generally stay at home, cook something tasty, and read a book to recharge my mental batteries. Just like bodies don’t have a binary of Healthy/Unhealthy, neither do minds.

  16. #16 Kriss
    July 13, 2010

    We always seem to end up discussing this subject when prompted by outrageous abuses of the system – no wonder people are under the impression the system is regularly abused.

    There are plenty of people who work unpaid overtime, work at home when they’re ill, go in anyway or die early of work-related illnesses such as stress-related heart problems. They go quietly.

  17. #17 amy
    July 14, 2010

    All of this is irrelevant to this situation without knowing WHY she was on sick leave. It is quite clear that these two were gaming the system. I am not sure how it works there but at my university, if you are given a medical leave for a period of time, you go on disability. You used up what sick leave you have and then disability kicks in. And there is a clear process to this all. You don’t just get a note and call in sick. You cannot go back to work UNTIL you are cleared from the disability process and YES, that is back to work with that employer. But there is the implication that if you are too sick to work, then you are too sick to work PERIOD for however long it plays out. Short of being too sick to work there due to severe emotional work place issues (harassment, etc), there is very little difference between an administrative DESK job and a teaching job. If she had been in a job that required a huge amount of physical labor or something that would cause physical pain that she needed a break from and then a light teaching job was manageable.. that’s one thing. But honestly, if she is not sick from WORK RELATED conditions, then she is too sick to work anywhere, PERIOD.

    And the lack of accountability for everything else? THe trips, the squandered money? All RED FLAGS.