Debate erupts over cuts in sick pay

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Employees in Norway can currently call in sick and still collect full pay, with a doctor’s evaluation only required after three days away from work. Now a Member of Parliament from the Conservative Party wants to cut sick pay benefits, setting off immediate objections from the opposition.

Politicians in Parliament will ultimately decide whether any changes are made to Norway’s state-subsidized sick pay system. PHOTO: Stortinget

“This comes like a gift to us,” declared Arild Grande, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party. Labour is determined to retain benefits for employees and vowed to fight for keeping sick pay intact.

“Proposals like this will increase differences between people and exclude folks from the workforce,” Grande said on state broadcaster NRK’s morning debate program Politisk kvarter. “It’s a proposal we’ll do everything we can to block.”

The debate erupted after Heidi Nordby Lunde, who leads the Conservative Party’s group on the labour and social services committee in Parliament, proposed cuts in sick pay benefits. She thinks that would reduce absenteeism on the job in addition to costs for employers and the state.

Internal disagreement
Not everyone within her own party agrees, but Lunde has received support from the national employers’ organization NHO. “Good welfare programs are important and we want them,” Nina Melsom, a director at NHO, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday, “but the question is whether adjustments to the system can increase participation in the workforce.”

Lunde is proposing “adjustments” like those introduced in Sweden 10 years ago. Employees of Swedish companies who call in sick lose pay for the first day but then receive up to seven days of sick pay without needing a doctor’s evaluation. Sick pay amounts to just 80 percent of normal pay, however. After a full year away from work, pay drops to 75 percent, except in cases of serious illness.

NHO’s Melsom stressed that sick pay represents an important source of social security in Norway, and NHO stands by the current system. It’s up for reevaluation at the end of this year, though, and Melsom said it would be “natural” to review any “necessary changes.”

LO demands full pay
Roger Haga, deputy leader of Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO, ruled out any cuts in actual sick pay. “LO can’t accept anything other than full pay during an illness,” Haga told DN. Grande of the Labour Party agreed, claiming that the Conservatives’ Lunde seems to want to move the burden of illness over to those who are ill.

Lunde held fast that sick pay cuts are necessary and could, if offset by tax cuts, also prompt more people to work harder and longer. “The combination of lower sick pay, higher activity obligations if they go on welfare and lower taxes if they work will get more people into the workforce,” she argues.

According to state statistics bureau SSB, Norway has an absenteeism rate of 6.4 percent when adjusted for flu-season absence. The absentee rate has been relatively stable over the last four years but Lunde thinks it’s high. The current sick pay system will continue through to the next election in 2021, but then she wants new debate that could result in concrete changes.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund