Stoltenberg tackles sick leave costs

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Alarms are ringing over Norway’s high and rising rate of sick leave, prompting Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to unveil new proposals to both cut government costs and get more Norwegians back to work. Business and union leaders claim they’re open to reforms, while some say sick pay cuts could cost Stoltenberg his job.

It’s not the first time Stoltenberg has tried to reduce both the high number of Norwegians on sick leave and the costs it creates for both employers and the government.

In Norway, employees still receive full pay from the first day of illness, with employers covering the cost of the first 16 days and the state picking up the tab after that, up to a maximum amount currently equivalent to NOK 437,000 (USD 75,000) in annual pay.

Self-employed workers receive no sick pay for the first 16 days but can then collect 65 percent of their annual pay up to the current NOK 437,000 maximum.Stoltenberg argues that the costs of covering this level of sick pay must come down. An earlier attempt to do so ended in a nasty battle with Norway’s trade union federation LO, though, and Stoltenberg of the Labour Party says he learned from that confrontation.

Now he’s promising that workers will continue to receive full pay if they fall ill. He wants stricter sick leave regulations, however, and may ask employers to assume more responsibility for monitoring sick leave and paying for it.

Speaking at an LO meeting in the mountain town of Gol on Thursday, Stoltenberg suggested that various illnesses could qualify for a fixed number of sick days, and could only be lengthened with approval from a specialist. Stoltenberg said Sweden has adopted such a reform, from which Norway can learn.

Primary physicians would no longer have the final word on granting sick leave to their patients, with specialists gaining more say. Stoltenberg also suggests more frequent and obligatory medical checks for those on long-term sick leave.

Stoltenberg said Norway has the world’s highest rate of workers out on sick leave, and the number of sick workers is rising 10 percent per year. Earlier efforts to control sick leave haven’t worked, he noted.

Union leaders argue that employers and the government need to study the cause of the high sick leave. They say working conditions in a vast array of businesses and industry are much tougher now, not least because of staff cuts and pressures on working parents. “There’s no room for people who can’t deliver 110 percent,” one union leader told newspaper Aftenposten , noting that sick leave has jumped after firms cut staffing.

Many union and business leaders realize something must be done to reduce sick leave but Stoltenberg has his critics. Some accused him of swapping Labour Party politics with those more in line with the Conservatives, and one LO leader said sick leave cuts could topple Stoltenberg.

“If the government chooses to go along with liberalization trends, if could end up with a change of government at the next election,” Roy Pedersen, told newspaper Dagsavisen .