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June 19, 2012 – 4:20PM

Unplanned absences may be costing the Queensland public service up to $2 billion a year, according to an audit report that also warned of an “entitlement culture” surrounding “sickies”.

Auditor-General Andrew Greaves said the annual direct costs to the state’s public service of unplanned absences, including sick leave and bereavement leave, had risen by 55 per cent from $328 million in 2006/07 to $509 million in 2010/11.

“With estimates of indirect costs, such as lost productivity, running at up to three times direct costs, unplanned absence could be costing closer to $2 billion annually,” he said in a report released today.

Mr Greaves said during the same period, the annual rate of unplanned absence per employee in the public service had increased by 9 per cent, from an average of 8.28 days to 9.02 days.

It had been steadily falling before then, from 8.81 days in 2003/04, he said.

Nearly 80 per cent of unplanned absence was reported as sick leave. Most public servants are entitled to 10 days a year of sick leave, with unused leave able to be rolled over into future years.

The audit report focused on three departments in more detail, including the Department of Education and Training which had a better-than-average unplanned attendance rate of 8.09 days per employee.

However, the Department of Public Works (9.79 days) recorded worse-than-average results. The Department of Community Safety, which includes the ambulance and fire and rescue services, reported 10.7 days of unplanned absences per employee last financial year.

The report said no departments identified indirect costs such as overtime and relief staff or the impact on staff morale and reduced service delivery, all of which flowed from unplanned absence.

“As a result, the departments do not know the full cost of unplanned absence,” the report said.

Mr Greaves said research showed one cause of absence resulted from an “entitlement culture – the taking of leave not genuinely meeting the entitlement condition (for example, a ‘sickie’ taken when the employee is not in ill-health)”.

He argued a reduction in the average rate of unplanned absence by one day across the public service could save $56 million each year in direct costs or up to $200 million annually when estimated indirect costs were taken into account.

Mr Greaves said while the overall unplanned absence rate remained within award conditions, the significant escalation of cost and the persistent upward trends created “a strong imperative to reduce the rates of unplanned absence and therefore reduce costs”.

“Most departments are not actively addressing this imperative,” he said.

“They are not analysing absence patterns to identify whether and where to target management intervention. Consequently, few departments manage unplanned absence effectively or can demonstrate a decrease in their unplanned absence rates.”

According to the report, employers can manage unplanned absence by establishing a work environment that promotes attendance, discouraging non-genuine absenteeism and setting realistic benchmarks and targets.

It also suggested collecting and analysing data to identify anomalous patterns and hotspots.

Mr Greaves called on the Public Service Commission to include absenteeism rates and trends for all departments, and direct and indirect costs, in its publicly available reports.

This should include appropriate benchmarks comparing Queensland public service absenteeism rates with those of other jurisdictions and sectors, he said.

All departments have been told to analyse their unplanned absence data to identify patterns and ‘hotspots’ that require management intervention.

Premier Campbell Newman said he had only had a chance to have a brief look at the report, released today, and would like to understand the factors at play before commenting.

Asked about the claims of an entitlement culture, Mr Newman said the state’s public service included many hard-working people.

The release of the report comes amid a brawl between a key public sector union and Mr Newman over a pay offer to public service and potential job cuts.

The Together union has raised the prospect of strike action over the 2.2 per cent a year pay offer to tens of thousands of “core” public servants, with secretary Alex Scott arguing the freezing of annual classification upgrades meant employees would receive less in their pockets than they would have.

But Mr Newman argued the state’s debt and deficit levels meant tough decisions had to be made and higher pay rises would make it harder to preserve as many public jobs as he would like.

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