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Doctors' clairvoyant sick notes plague Slovak companies

One of the most pressing problems for human resource managers in Slovakia is the práceneschopnosť - the permission note given by doctors to excuse an employee from work due to illness. Although employers can ill-afford these days to pay an unproductive workforce, some workers are still happy to take advantage both of a system which allows employees unlimited sick days, and of doctors who will readily offer signatures of approval.
"We have really big problems with employees taking advantage of sick leave," said Ľubica Štugelová, human resources and legal director for Levitex textile manufacturer in Levice.

One of the most pressing problems for human resource managers in Slovakia is the práceneschopnosť - the permission note given by doctors to excuse an employee from work due to illness. Although employers can ill-afford these days to pay an unproductive workforce, some workers are still happy to take advantage both of a system which allows employees unlimited sick days, and of doctors who will readily offer signatures of approval.

"We have really big problems with employees taking advantage of sick leave," said Ľubica Štugelová, human resources and legal director for Levitex textile manufacturer in Levice.

"Often, employees falsify their illness because it is very easy to get a note from the doctor. This is a regular problem." On average, Štugelová said, 14% of her company's 900 workers are absent on sick leave at any one time. Presently, in Levitex's linen department, 20% of the employees are absent for health reasons.

Zuzana Červeňáková has 20 years experience as a general physician, and works in the east Slovak town of Prešov. She also serves as an occupational health physician for several regional factories. Červeňáková agreed that some employees are all too willing to fake illnesses to get out of work.

"As a physician, I see a lot of problems with patients who try to solve their work problems by getting permission from physicians to stay home, without really being sick," she said. "This permission is not only given for sickness, but also for 'social problems' which are more difficult to diagnose."

Červeňáková rejected the popular belief that many doctors are prepared to accept bribes to dole out sick notes, or to hand out such slips to make sure they don't lose patients. She said she had no personal knowledge of such practices among physicians. "It's hard to say [if this goes on a lot], but I don't see this as a big problem because I don't see myself losing patients if I don't give notices for sick leave. This happens sometimes, maybe, but it is not very widespread as far as I can see," she said.

However, Karol Balog, director of the Agency for Industrial Development and Revitalisation (AIDR), felt that a poorly supervised medical system was partly to blame for a willingness among some doctors to excuse workers.

Under communism, Balog said, most companies employed their own doctor to ensure a healthy workforce. The amount of sick leave these doctors gave patients was closely overseen by the company. However, he added, that has now changed.

"Now, after the revolution, the system is very liberal and doctors' diagnoses are not checked to see if they are true or false. A lot of people are misusing this situation," Balog said.

Gerard Koolen, managing partner with Lugera and Makler marketing firm, said that the problem of employees taking advantage of sick days was much more widespread among production companies than service companies. This, he said, was due to lower wages in the sector, and to workers looking for an easy escape from tough, monotonous labour.

Koolen cited a Labour Office survey of 100 service and production companies in 1999, showing absenteeism in production companies averaging from 10% to 15%, but only about 3% to 4% in the service industry. In one period in 1999, a full 30% of the country's entire production workforce was absent from work.

Like the textile company Levitex, shoe manufacturer Jas Export has also encountered problems from excess absenteeism. During certain periods of the year, said general manager Jozef Stalmach, the rate skyrocketed to 20%, but usually hovers around the 10% range.

Perhaps one positive aspect for employers regarding absenteeism is that the company affected stands to lose money from decreased productivity only. Sick leave benefits are paid by the state, so companies can avoid the costs associated with paying an employee while they are sick at home.

Sick note solutions

General director of the internet provider Nextra, Dag Ole Storrosten, said that he had heard many complaints from fellow business owners on the abuse of the práceneschopnosť by employees. But he said his company had managed to avoid such problems by hiring young staff and creating a motivational work environment.

"In our company, we do not have a problem with absent employees," he said. "We have a fairly young staff here, and most of these people are motivated to work and are not into the system of using doctors to get out of work. I think that you see this more with companies with a higher average age, and perhaps also when that is combined with lower motivation."

Anna Hudáková, personnel director for tobacco company Slovak International Tabak, said that the absentee rate at her company averaged 5%. Paying employees a higher-than-average wage, she said, did much in motivating people to come to work. This was because the government pays only 70% of an employee's net daily salary (up to a maximum of 350 crowns, or $7.30) for the first three days of leave. Each subsequent day, the government pays 90% of net daily salary (again, limited to a 350 crown maximum). Due to the constraints of the benefits, employees making more than 10,000 crowns a month, a figure below the national average wage, lose a significant percentage of their salaries if they take sick leave.

Other programmes Tabak employs include offering free company-wide flu vaccinations each autumn, and a new policy - begun last year - which put teams in charge of various projects. In doing this, individual team members feel an increased responsibility toward their colleagues, while other team members must take on the extra workload if a colleague falls ill.

The tobacco company also tries to organise production plans around holidays. "We try to plan our production - for example in eastern Slovakia [where the company owns production plants in Spišská Belá and Smolník] - in accordance with school holidays. So, if production is low at this time, people are able to take their holiday," Hudáková said.

Solutions employed by Levitex and Jas Export have focused on bonuses. Jas Export's Stalmach said that an employee present every day of a month earned an extra 10% of their salary. "When we started this programme last year, we soon became aware that it was working. The average absenteeism has dropped from 15% to 10%," he said.

At Levitex, a bonus system allots 3,000 crowns to employees who go a business quarter without missing a day. The company also sends representatives to check up on long-term home stays.

A continuing legislative barrier

Restrictive legislation, however, is still a blight on firms' attempts to deal with workers abusing sick leave. The seemingly simple solution of releasing employees taking advantage of sick leave is not an option for frustrated bosses.

"Ideally, you would be able to fire these people, but it is very difficult," Balog said. "Current legislation makes it very difficult to fire somebody. You can't use the reason that they were sick for half a year last year - it's impossible, then you get into serious trouble."

According to Slovak law, an employer must give an employee written notice of an infraction or poor performance three months in advance of dismissal, Failure to do that can result in a court case for wrongful dismissal - still uncommon in Slovakia - as well as the employer's having to pay two months' wages as a severance package [5 months pay in total]

Storrosten agreed: "It's difficult to prove that an employee is not fulfilling the responsibilities of a job. Even if an employee is doing criminal things, the burden to prove that this person is inadequate is really tough. The laws here are so rigid and do so much to protect the workers that they can do almost anything before you can get to the point of dismissing them.

"I think that more flexible employment legislation and more competition among the workforce would create a much better working climate and a better Slovakia."

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