No matter how forcefully the federal government may legislate 48,000 postal employees back to work, chances are more than 12,000 of them will either book off sick, or show up for "light duties" that don’t include delivering a single piece of mail.

This would be not an act of mass-defiance towards parliament — it is actually business as usual at Canada Post.

Statistics show that on an average day at the post office, over five per cent of the entire operating workforce will call in sick, while roughly another 20 per cent will be classified injured or otherwise partially disabled and assigned to limited duties.

No wonder the issue is at the forefront of the current labor dispute between the federal mail service and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers representing letter carriers and sorters.

Push for overhaul

Canada Post management has long pushed for an overhaul of sick leave provisions – the same issue was at the heart of the last postal strike in 2008 – arguing the current system is being abused for casual time-off, buries managers in paperwork, and ultimately puts stress on other employees who do show up for their shifts.

Moya Greene, longtime president of the Crown corporation until last year, lamented the creation of a "work culture in which coming to work is optional; and doing the whole job is not required."

The postal union is equally adamant the problem isn’t employees abusing sick leave, but a work environment and physical job stresses that generate unacceptably high rates of injury and illness.

Union officials interviewed since postal workers were locked out earlier this week claim Canada Post’s demand for a more strict sick-leave system administered by a private insurance company is entirely an attempt to save money.


Canada Post workers demonstrate outside a sorting facility in Ottawa after the corporation locked them out. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On that issue, the postal service doesn’t have much choice.

The advent of email, text messaging, electronic bill-paying and increasing competition from private courier companies have had a predictable impact on the volume of conventional mail, or what has become known in the tech world as "snail mail."

Over the past five years, Canada Post has been delivering increasingly fewer letters to increasingly more Canadian mailboxes.

Falling volume of mail

The average number of letters delivered per address has dropped 17 per cent, while the number of households with postal service has been increasing by about 200,000 a year.

According to the latest figures available, Canada Post revenues in 2009 tanked by $268 million, mail volume was down 4.2 per cent, and only massive cost-cutting saved taxpayers from a mountain of red ink.

Against such a grim financial backdrop, the postal union’s latest demands for more money, job protection and golden perqs were certain to be a tough sell with Canada Post management, not to mention with the Conservative government and Canadian taxpayers.

Consider just the sick-leave provisions: Under their existing contract, postal employees get up to 15 sick days a year – three work-weeks — at full pay. Since 2005, the average worker notably has been booking off sick roughly 14 days a year.

Canada Post is now offering employees a new system of seven "personal" days a year that could be used for just about anything, including sick leave.


Canada Post vehicles sit idle outside a sorting depot in the borough of Ville St. Laurent in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Currently, posties can also accumulate any sick days they don’t use from the annual allocation of 15.

As a result, according to the union, 26 per cent of employees have over 30 weeks of unused sick leave; some have over 80 weeks.

The cost to the government postal service – and ultimately Canadian taxpayers – is huge.

Sick leave alone represents over $100 million a year in lost labor.

Former Canada Post president Greene once described the problems of absenteeism and disability as a "huge managerial challenge…This gives rise to serious operational problems, growing inefficiencies and widespread malaise in the workplace.

"This is a hard way to have to run any business."

Greene described front-line managers struggling "to manage the high levels of absenteeism…and the need to find jobs for the growing numbers who say they cannot do the job they were hired to do.

"Too many of our people treat their sick leave as extra discretionary time they can take, no questions asked."

The union counters with statistics that show the rate of employees off the job due to work-related injury has been rising, while the use of casual sick leave is down slightly.

All of which is likely to fall on deaf ears around Stephen Harper’s cabinet table as the government prepares to end the current postal lockout, and order everyone back to work.

Rain or shine, the Harper government won’t be delivering any big bailouts to Canada Post.