Education Minister Liz Sandals says it looks like Ontario teachers are taking more sick days because they lost the right to bank them and take a cash payout on retirement.
"There's no reason to believe that they're actually sicker than they were two years ago," Sandals said with a chuckle as she entered a cabinet meeting Wednesday.
"It would appear that there is a relationship between the belief that you lost something and taking more sick days."
The government says it saved an immediate $1 billion by eliminating teachers' ability to bank sick days in 2012, plus another $625 million in the next three years.
But teachers have been calling in sick more often since the benefit changes, costing school boards hundreds of millions of dollars to hire supply teachers.
"Some of it is almost like a reaction to misinformation," said Sandals. "They actually didn't understand that the sick leave plan if you're a young teacher is actually much better now than the old one."
Under the new plan, young teachers who become seriously ill have access to short-term disability benefits which they wouldn't have received under the old plan unless they had already banked enough sick days.
"If they were a beginning teacher and hadn't banked days, they were out of luck," said Sandals. "With the new sick leave plan, if you get very ill at the beginning of your career you're actually protected because there is a long short-term leave plan they have access to."
Sandals hopes educating teachers about the "more generous" benefits of the new plan will help reduce the number of sick days.
Recent contract agreements with two of Ontario's big four teachers unions included sick leave management plans to address teacher absenteeism, added Sandals.
"There's a plan in place with the government, the unions and the school boards association, but with some of the others there isn't," she said. "It is something that we obviously need to have the boards working on attendance management."
The Ministry of Education doesn't track teachers' absenteeism, which is left up to individual school boards.
The Elementary Teachers Federation and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sandal's remarks.