SaskTel has been ordered to make changes in how it collects information from sick workers after an arbitrator rules the company was not respecting employee privacy.

The ruling, published recently to an online legal database, concerns a form the crown corporation has workers fill-out when they apply for sick leave.

SaskTel has about 2,500 unionized workers and an annual sick leave bill that was over $9 million in 2009 and dropped to $7.6 million in 2010 according to arbitrator Bob Pelton, a Regina lawyer.

'SaskTel's position was that at times sick leave was being fraudulently abused.' —Arbitrator Bob Pelton

Pelton was asked by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada and management of SaskTel to settle an argument over how much medical information the corporation could get when it processed sick leave claims.

"[According to the union] SaskTel's concern was that employees could get doctors to sign off on almost anything," Pelton wrote in his decision.

Pelton said the company believed some workers were not really sick.

"SaskTel's position was that at times sick leave was being fraudulently abused," Pelton noted.

SaskTel tried to clamp down on abuse using an "attendance management" system and a private sector health benefits administrator to review claims.

Union challenges company

But those moves were challenged by the union.

"Simply put the Union claims that the information being routinely sought... is too intrusive," Pelton said.

In deciding the issue, Pelton said it came down to weighing the rights of both sides.

"There has to be a balancing of an employee's right to privacy of medical information versus an employer's legitimate business interests," Pelton said.

"The extent to which an employer may be entitled to personal medical information depends on the circumstances," he added, noting that both sides "agreed that the medical information which SaskTel is entitled to is on a continuum. As such, more information might be reasonably necessary for an absence of 16 or 17 weeks then for 5 or 6 consecutive working days."

But Pelton learned SaskTel was asking all employees to submit the same amount of medical information, no matter what the circumstances were.

Ultimately, Pelton found SaskTel was asking too much of its workers and he ordered the company to change its ways.

"SaskTel is directed to forthwith modify the ... form which it asks employees to complete on an application for casual sick leave benefits," Pelton said.