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NO HIDING PLACE FOR THE SHIRKERS; As Merseyside launches a crackdown on sickness levels among its public sector workforce, JANE WOODHEAD and IAN FANNON investigate Stop feigning illness, council staff warned.


COUNCIL staff across the region are being warned to stop taking time off sick.

Latest figures show Knowsley has the highest absence rate of the five Merseyside authorities - and it is rising.

In the last financial year, it lost nearly three weeks of work per employee.

The problem is so bad the council has announced a crackdown on workers who fake illness.

The rate of 14.8 days off per employee is up from 13.5 the previous year.

It means 53,261 days work were lost, the equivalent of the work of 232 full-time staff.

It compares poorly with Liverpool council, which claims to have reduced its rate from 15.6 to 10.1 days in the past year.

The rate at St Helens is 10.8 and Wirral's is 11.9. Sefton council failed to provide a figure, but it is known to be below Knowsley's.

Knowsley's sickness rate is also well short of its target of 9.5 days, which is just below the average for English councils of 10 days.

The worst offenders appear to be in the social services department, which lost nearly 29 days work per average employee.

Council leader Jim Keight said: ``We have to do everything we can to address this problem.

``Clearly there are people who are ill, but there are obviously too many who find it easier just to have a day off.''

Meanwhile, union officials have criticised Merseyside fire chiefs who are claiming that sickness records among their staff are improving.

Merseyside fire service says it believes it is successfully managing the number of days firefighters are taking off sick, despite failing to reach targets.

The latest sickness figures, in a report obtained by the ECHO, show an increase in days taken off by firefighters in the past four years.

In 1998/1999, 5.53% of working hours were lost. This rose to 6.33% last year - unions claim this is equivalent to nine shifts being lost.

The service's occupational health, safety and welfare team set targets for absence levels to be reduced to below 5% last year.

But fire chiefs stress that sickness levels were as high as 16% seven years ago and it is as a direct result of ``robust'' sickness monitoring that a reduction has been made.

Les Skarratts, secretary of the Merseyside fire brigade union, claims the sickness figures are flawed.

``There are increased demands on firefighters to return to work following illness or injury.

``I do not believe these figures create a true picture. I also have grave concerns about the way these statistics have been collected.''

Alex MacDougall, spokesman for Merseyside fire service, said officers are happy with ``dramatic'' decrease in sickness levels.

``The fire service has systems to help people to get back to work at the earliest opportunity.

``We are offering extra training to all of our firefighters and also have a robust absent monitoring scheme. This is all helping towards reducing our sickness rate.''
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 25, 2002
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