Talks begin over sick leave reform

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Alarms have been ringing for months after new figures suggest that too many Norwegians are collecting sick leave and disability benefits. Union leaders, employers’ representatives and government officials launched talks on Thursday over how they can collectively get people back to work and cut costs for everyone, not least the taxpayers.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has put efforts to reduce sick leave at the top of his agenda. No one can explain why Norwegians, who allegedly live in one of the best countries on earth, have such high rates of sick leave, but they do.

Current figures show that 7.7 percent of the Norwegian workforce is away from work at any given time. That’s risen from 7.1 percent in 2001, when the government tried to tackle sick leave costs in an earlier initiative. The goal then was to create more “inclusive” working conditions in Norway, and also get more elderly and impaired people back on the job. Another Stoltenberg initiative in 2006 launched several measures to follow up those on sick leave and speed their recovery.

None of it has worked, so Stoltenberg is demanding reform now. His Labour Minister Hanne Bjurstrøm has stated, however, that all parties to the talks have veto power and must support any eventual deal. Achieving that will be the tricky part.

There’s plenty of signs of goodwill, though, also from unions that don’t want any major cuts in current sick leave benefits.

At present, Norwegian employees still receive full pay from the first day of any illness. They can be away from work for three days based on their own call. After that, they must obtain additional sick leave authorization from a doctor.

Employers are responsible for covering the costs of the first 16 days of an employees’ absence. After that, the state picks up the tab.A survey conducted for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) indicates that 52 percent of Norwegians themselves think it’s “too easy” to call in sick in Norway, and that rules could be tightened. Doctors have been criticized lately for being too quick to write out a sykemelding (sick leave authorization), while debate also has risen over whether a weaker work ethic in Norway is behind the high rate of sick leave.

In recent years, it’s become almost common for employees with personal problems or trouble at work to take off on sick leave. Top government, union and business leaders under stress have done the same, sending perhaps a dubious signal to the rest of the work force. One psychologist told NRK earlier this week that he thinks some Norwegians simply have become spoiled or even lazy, and said he’s “frankly told some patients to get a grip on their lives (ta seg sammen) ” and get back to work.

A variety of possible cures for sick leave will be proposed as reform talks proceed (see box, upper right) . The goal is to reach agreement by March 1. An expert commission will also be making its recommendation to the government on February 3. The government has promised that full pay will continue to be granted under authorized sick leave. The question is how that authorization will be determined.