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Sick leave rate in Estonia significantly fell with return to pre-Covid system

A family doctor's waiting room.
A family doctor's waiting room. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Sick leave payments fell by nearly 40 percent following the reversion to the pre-Covid era system in the second half of 2023, the Health Insurance Fund (Haigekassa) says.

From July 1 last year, employee sick pay reverted to a system whereby it was payable from the fourth day of a period of illness, and not from the second day, as had been the case during the pandemic.

Lea Kalda, head of the health fund's disability benefits service, told ERR that: "This more favorable sick pay procedure during the coronavirus period ended as of June, and what we have been seeing is that whereas for the first half of 2023, approximately 233,000 sick pay periods were reimbursed by the health insurance fund, an average of 39,000 per month, for the second half of the year, the number of sick leave compensation payments came to 146,000, making an average 24,000 sick leaves per month."

This halving of the numbers represented a return to pre-pandemic levels, meaning that towards the end of the pandemic, sick leave was being taken out around twice as much as in previous years.

Similarly in 2019, the last full pre-Covid year, the number of incapacity for work (Töövõimetus) payments stood at 419,000, compared with 737,000 in 2022, the last full year the pandemic-era sick leave system was in place, Kalda said.

CEO of the Central Union of Employers (Tööandjate Keskliit) Arto Aas welcomed the restoration of the pre-Covid situation.

While he stressed that genuinely unwell people certainly should not be going to work, neither should the system be in effect abused by sick leave being "taken more lightly."

Aas said: "From this data, it can be deduced that when the benefits is particularly generous and people themselves do not have much responsibility as a result of that, then these sick leave periods are also taken somewhat more lightly."

This is particularly the case given the current challenging economic situation, he went on.

"In my opinion, this somewhat more modest compensation scheme has justified itself."

Regardless of the procedure for paying benefits, several thousand benefits remain unpaid every year, however, Lea Kalda said.

The main factor is that the health fund does not have the correct data on the people in question, for instance the correct bank account details

In this case, if transfers have not been successfully made, "the right to receive compensation expires within three years," Kalda cautioned.

The total number of people whose benefit payments are still pending stands at around 5,700 for the past three years, she added.

"I would certainly like to call on all people to check their data and, if necessary, update their current account data," Kalda went on.

Under the current system, as noted reinstated at the start of July last year, the sick pay benefits system is: From days one to three inclusive of a period of declared sickness, no sick pay is issued, while the employer pays for days four to eight inclusive. From day nine, the state, ie. the Health Insurance Fund, pay the requisite benefit.

As a result of Covid and the requirement for many people to be off work if testing positive or even if having come into contact with those with the virus, the state reduced the period before sick pay kicked in to just one day.

The counter argument to this is that it encourages those members of the workforce who have no compunction about doing so to "throw a sickie."

While trade unions in Estonia have called for sick pay from day one, Arto Aas said that in any case, an employee's illness brings costs one way or another.

"The worst aspect is when people abuse the system, ie. they are not sick at all. This will cost both the employer and other taxpayers who prop up the health insurance system. From the employer's point of view: if a person is actually sick, then their regular work has to be carried out by someone else, and that someone may be due overtime or other additional pay," Aas said.

"Besides, the disruption can be quite a headache, especially in those companies where it is not viable to leave some work sections temporarily unfilled, for example in production units, or also in the service sector," Aas went on.

One preemptive measure Aas suggested was getting vaccinated during 'flu season or periods of other viral outbreaks.

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Editor: Kai Vare, Mirjam Mäekivi, Andrew Whyte

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