Fathers figure lowest among absentee employees

June 10, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Of all the workers in this country -- of various ages, lif situations and professions -- guess which are most likely to be on the job each day.

Men with children under 6.

Is this just an ambitious, career-conscious group?

Or do the persistent demands from those little mouths send fathers seeking refuge at work each day?

The U.S. Department of Labor doesn't offer any explanations, just the stats.

And those stats are wide open to interpretation. Some say, sure, it proves that women do all the household work and make the career sacrifices to be at home with kids.

Others suggest that it simply goes unnoticed when men in better jobs take the occasional day off to attend to family needs.

Still others worry that absenteeism isn't caused by sickness or real emergencies, as workers would like them to believe. Lenient policies, they fear, encourage abuse at a time when the work force is being pinched.

According to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual absence rate in 1992 for married men with one or more children under 6 was 3.3 days. Unmarried fathers had an even better attendance record, averaging just 2.8 days absent.

At the other end of the absenteeism scale were married women with children under 6, who averaged 10.5 missed workdays for the year. Unmarried women with children under 6 did a bit better, missing 9.9 days.

Although those statistics don't necessarily reflect fathers' unwillingness to stay home with the kids -- especially since single men, many of whom live apart from their children, have the best attendance records -- they do seem to show that the burden of child care in two-worker families is where everybody figures it is: on working mothers.

Many health problems related to chronic fatigue are caused by ** this burden, said Edward Micek, director of the Occupational Health Center at Nazareth Hospital in Philadelphia. "Chronic fatigue can be a separate syndrome or it can be related to arm strain, backaches, tension.

L "Tension in the working woman is paramount," said Mr. Micek.

"Men go out every day, maybe to get away from the children," Mr. Micek said. "They're willing to chop the wood, but not to come home and do the dishes."

Although Mr. Micek has noted that women tend to be working themselves into illness, the Labor Department statistics show that nearly half the time, they take time off for reasons other than personal illness. And those reasons, according to experts, very often involve care of children or the elderly. For example, in the group with the highest absenteeism -- married women with small children -- of the 10.5 days taken off, only 3.5 were due to the women's own illness; the rest fell under the Labor Department category of "other reasons."

Although "women certainly are saddled with the burden of child care," said Vicki Kramer, director of Options, a career-consulting firm, the Labor Department's "gross figures" on absenteeism are subject to several interpretations.

"A lot has to do with the types of jobs women have," she said, noting that a larger percentage of women are hourly workers without vacations.

Indeed, Labor Department statistics categorized by industry and occupation show that executives, administrators and managers missed an average of 3.5 days in 1992, while people in service occupationsmissed an average of 6.2 days.

Maybe some men are taking time off for child care, Ms. Kramer said, but if they are, they may be in jobs where their part-of-the-day absences are never recorded.

Absences are noticed particularly in industries that rely on hourly workers for a set amount of products or services. There, bogus sick days are a major concern, says John Shelsy, senior vice president of the MidAtlantic Employers Association.

Hourly production workers surveyed by Mr. Shelsy's group average 4.25 sick days a year. He estimated that 92 percent of workers are conscientious and are likely to be telling the truth whatever day they call in.

A way to identify the worst offenders and keep the problem at a minimum is "to set a clear, concise attendance-control policy and enforce it," said Mr. Shelsy. He suggests that companies set the number of acceptable or paid sick days and take disciplinary action when workers go over the limit.

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