The federal government intends to overhaul the way public servants can take time off work for being sick in a way that will benefit them and the taxpayer, Treasury Board President Tony Clement says.

Clement said Monday the changes will tackle the abnormally high rates of absenteeism in the federal public service and provide better help for ill employees so they can get back to work faster.

"We are overhauling an archaic system that does not work for the taxpayer and doesn't work for the employee," Clement said at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

Clement said the average worker uses 18.2 days of paid and unpaid leave per year, which is an "unsustainable" rate for any employer that wants to run a modern workforce.

Public servants get 15 days of sick leave a year, which can accumulate and carry over year to year. Before sick employees can qualify for disability, they must exhaust any accumulated sick leave. The long-term disability plan can only kick in after 13 weeks off work, so people with less than 13 weeks of accumulated sick leave must take time off without pay other than employment insurance sick benefits.

Clement said nearly 60 per cent of public servants don't have enough banked sick days to get them through to the 13 weeks and that the system is unfair to younger and newer employees. As a result the government intends to create a new short-term disability program, he announced.

The second part of his announcement is the intention to overhaul the long-term disability program, which he described as "archaic and outdated."

"It is metaphorically at least a dinosaur of disability management," said Clement. It hasn't been updated in 40 years and things have changed since then, he said. Mental illness, for example, is talked about and dealt with more in the workplace, he said.

Sick day changes will be discussed with unions

The new system is going to include much more "active case management," he explained, that will ensure employees are getting the help they need to get them back to work faster.

Clement didn't specify exactly what reforms the government wants to make, but when asked if public servants might lose the number of sick days they are allotted every year or the ability to carry them over, he said the government will be talking to the unions representing the employees.

"We're going to be in a collective bargaining situation," Clement said. "The facts are very few employers nowadays have a banked sick day system ... that is not common now."

At any given time there are more than 19,000 public servants off work, he said, and 13,149 are on long-term disability out of a total of 285,000 workers. The average disability claim lasts 7.7 years according to Clement.

"We can do better, both for the taxpayer but also for the employee," he said.

Clement said the more active case management will include more followup with workers who are off to ensure they are getting the appropriate support. But it will also help catch those who are trying to cheat the system.

"In any cases of unwarranted absenteeism, we'll be able to track that a lot better and make sure people are not taking advantage of the system," said Clement.

Clement said he thinks the vast majority of public servants are legitimately ill when they take sick leave but that the high absenteeism rate is well beyond what other public sector workforces, and the private sector, experience.

"We can debate until the cows come home why that is. I think we've got to have a better system in place to manage with the employee her or his sick time so we can get them back to work as soon as possible," he said.

Monday's announcement comes after Clement announced two weeks ago that a new performance review system will be introduced, aimed at boosting productivity and weeding out employees who perform poorly.

Union says morale going down

The NDP's treasury board critic Mathieu Ravignat said Clement's announcement lacked details and that some of his statistics were "problematic." He's not convinced that there are major problems and he said it's "bizarre" Clement would announce the changes during national public service week.

"I think this is a way of changing the channel on a government that is racked with scandal after scandal," he said.

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said his union hadn't been told anything in advance about the short-term disability program idea or other proposals.

He said there are issues in the public service and they are being worked on but the focus is too often negative from the government side.

"It seems that this government is demonizing the public service a lot," said Corbett. "There's a lot of good that goes on in the public service as well and we don't hear a lot about that." He said the government's attitude is forcing morale in the public service to dip.

Corbett said PIPSC wants to work with the government to try and improve the way sick leave is handled.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said in a statement that the government is "misleading" Canadians about sick leave and that the private and public sectors shouldn't be compared to each other.

"It's public service week, and instead of recognizing the important work these people do on behalf of Canadians, this government is accusing them of milking the system," Robyn Benson, PSAC national president said. "The government should be doing more to promote healthy workplaces, prevent illness and help people who are sick get back to work."

Changes to sick leave in the public service were hinted at in the federal budget in March. It said the government would be reviewing its human resources management practices, including in the areas of disability and sick leave.

An internal Treasury Board report, obtained by CBC News last June, indicated federal workers have been booking off sick in record numbers, costing Canadian taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in lost wages alone.