INTRODUCTION

Absenteeism brings with it high costs for employers, leading to losses in efficiency, productivity and even the demoralization of staff. In such a context, the employer must act quickly. This text provides an overview of the basic principles applicable to absenteeism.1

The obligation to perform work is the foundation of the employment contract.2 The employer can expect work to be performed in a consistent manner and for such work to be of sufficient quality.

However, a wide range of laws apply to the issue of absenteeism, sometimes making it difficult for employers to make sense of them all and to fully understand the scope of their managerial rights. In a unionized environment, such managerial rights are of course limited by the terms of the collective agreement.

Generally speaking, an employer is entitled to be informed of the health of its employees , meaning that he or she may be provided with access to certain medical information. In addition, the employer has not only the right, but also the duty, under various occupational health and safety laws, to ensure that such an employee is capable of performing his or her work. The employer is also entitled to be informed of the reasons for the employee’s absence, to assess whether such justifications are reasonable, and, if necessary, to take disciplinary action.

There are two forms of absenteeism, and each must be managed in a different way.

UNJUSTIFIED ABSENTEEISM

Unjustified absenteeism can leave the employee open to sanctions in accordance with the principle of escalating sanctions (verbal notice, written notice, short suspensions, lengthy suspensions, and dismissal).

Unjustified absences are absences which are neither authorized nor justified, and include absences taken under false pretences. There are also other violations which are related to absenteeism, such as the failure to provide notice of an absence or of the fact that one will arrive late to work (even where such absence/ tardiness is justified), the unjustified and unauthorized abandonment of one’s position, the refusal to provide a valid medical certificate upon request, or the falsification or fabrication of a medical certificate.

Where absences are repeated or combined with other violations, the sanction will be more severe.

Note that, in the absence of specific clauses in the collective agreement on this subject, an absence for “personal reasons” is not justified.

JUSTIFIED ABSENTEEISM

Justified absenteeism is involuntary. In such a case, the employer’s management of the employee will be administrative rather than disciplinary in nature.

For example, an employee may be absent on numerous occasions, all of which may be justified, particularly if the absences have been authorized by the employer for a valid reason (e.g., health problems), or were permitted by statute (Act Respecting Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases,3 Act Respecting Labour Standards4) or the collective agreement.

This type of absenteeism can sometimes justify dismissal. For this to be the case, the following five (5) elements must generally be demonstrated:

  1. The absenteeism is excessive and lasts for a significant amount of time.

In this respect, it is useful to compare the employee’s rate of absenteeism with the average rate of absenteeism within the company. While there is no magic number, an absenteeism rate fluctuating at a minimum of about 20% over a period of three (3) or four (4) years can be considered excessive.5

  1. Little likelihood of improvement in the foreseeable future.

If the employee’s absenteeism is primarily or entirely due to a single cause (e.g., chronic illness), medical evidence will be necessary and must address the prognosis, among other things. The instructions to the medical expert must be well-written so that he or she can provide a complete and substantiated opinion. Where the absence is due to multiple causes, such evidence is not required.

  1. The absenteeism has consequences for the business.

It is advisable to document the effects of the absenteeism both on the workplace (e.g., work overload) and on the costs that it entails (e.g., overtime, new hires).

  1. The employee is informed of the problem and of the risk of losing his or her job.

It is appropriate to meet with the employee to ensure that he or she is aware of, and to require him or her to resolve, the absenteeism problem. The employee should be informed that his or her employment may be terminated if his or her attendance does not improve.

  1. The employee has a disability or “handicap”6 and the employer is not able to accommodate him without undue hardship.

If the employee has a “handicap” within the meaning of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms,7 the duty to accommodate will be triggered. For example, physical musculoskeletal limitations, alcoholism, drug addiction, bipolar illness, depression, and anxiety may all constitute “handicaps”. The employer will therefore have a duty to attempt to find a reasonable accommodation. The employee, his union, where applicable, and his colleagues must also be involved in this process. However, the employer will be relieved of its obligation if it can demonstrate that it is not possible to accommodate the employee without experiencing undue hardship. Undue hardship may result from the impact of the accommodation on other workers or from the significant costs the business may incur given its size and financial resources.

MEDICAL CERTIFICATE

The employer is not entitled to require medical certificates on a systematic basis, but rather must have a legitimate interest and valid reasons for doing so. Such reasons may include: 

  • repeated or chronic absenteeism;
  • where questionable reasons are given for the absence;
  • to evaluate an employee’s ability to return to work following a prolonged absence;
  • to evaluate the employee’s ability to perform the work where there are valid reasons for doubting his or her ability (e.g. repeated falls, disorientation, blackouts).

To be valid, the medical certificate must be signed by a physician and must refer to the specific dates of the absences. A mere statement that the employee was seen by a physician is insufficient.8 The employer may require a detailed medical certificate indicating a diagnosis.9

CONCLUSION

We invite you to clearly inform your employees of the company’s expectations as they relate to attendance ( punctuality, notice of absences or tardiness prior to the beginning of one’s shift, compliance with the work schedule, and the obligation to remain at one’s station for the entire shift, etc.). Employees should also be informed that they may be required not only to justify their absences, but also to provide a valid medical certificate if they cite their health as the reason for their absence.