NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Sickouts": Labor's New Tactic?

February 12, 1999

Public employees are familiar with the tactic of massive sick calls to win some concession or other, and have used it from time to time in the past. Now the practice is spreading to private sector employees -- the latest example being among pilots at American Airlines.

Labor experts warn that such "sickouts" may become a workplace epidemic.

  • Municipal police departments -- which face stiff legal barriers against strikes -- have resorted to outbreaks of "blue flu" over the years.
  • Last winter the 21,000-student Racine, Wis., school district was closed for several days when hundreds of teachers called in sick after contract negotiations broke down.
  • In the private sector, sickouts are becoming more common because workers don't want to lose their jobs, observers report.
  • If a company can obtain proof that a worker isn't ill, it can discipline the worker -- but such proof is hard to come by.

Sickouts are a valuable tactic because they generally last long enough to inconvenience and threaten the profits of the employer, but not long enough for that employer to replace workers who participate. "Whenever the company is most vulnerable, you throw the monkey wrench," advises an official of a New York company that devises strategies for unions."

A midsized manufacturing facility in Alabama squelched a planned sickout by announcing that employees who professed to be ill would have to be diagnosed by a company-approved physician or have their doctor's diagnosis approved by the company doctor. Employees who called in sick without such a diagnosis could be disciplined or even dismissed.

Sources: Emily Nelson and J. C. Conklin, "Leery of Strikes, More Workers Stage Sickouts," Wall Street Journal, February 12, 1999.


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