A revealing survey recently crossed my desk. It was from a human resources outsourcing organization that conducted it on behalf of a client trade association of plumbing contractors that do new construction work. The annual "Unscheduled Absence Survey" by ADP Screening and Selection Services found that unscheduled employee absenteeism climbed to a five-year high of 2.4 percent last year, up from 1.9 percent in 2003. According to the study, only 38 percent of unscheduled absences are due to genuine illness.

Here's why the other 62 percent of employees surveyed called in sick:

• Twenty three percent cited family issues

• Eighteen percent "personal needs"

• Eleven percent "too stressed out"

• Ten percent were attributed to an "entitlement mentality," i.e., sick leave is perceived as the same thing as vacation time, so employees feel they have the right to use it as they please

Read between the lines and I think you'll find a single fundamental reason behind many of the excuses. Sure, some of those 62 percent who call in sick may be just goofing off but I bet many "family issues ... personal needs ... stressed out ... entitlement" excuses stem from noble attempts to be good caregivers to family members.

According to the National Family Caregivers Association, more than 50 million Americans are taking care of chronically ill, aged or disabled family members. That's about one out of every six people who are faced with such challenges. The numbers ring true because the baby boomers of my generation are starting to approach retirement age. So, if we're getting old that means our surviving parents are really old.

Add to them the young families faced with child care issues while mom and dad both work full time-two-income families being the rule rather than the exception these days. Then factor in various studies showing that Americans are working increasingly longer hours at the same time these extracurricular demands on their time are increasing. No surprise that folks are calling in sick at in increasing rate.

Many employers are inclined to say that's not their problem. Their employees have a job to do and if they can't do it, they don't belong on the payroll.

It's your right as an employer to react that way but I think it's shortsighted. Compassion aside, the labor market isn't exactly overflowing with people clamoring for the jobs you offer. A good way to gain a competitive edge on most other small businesses drawing from the same shrunken talent pool would be to find ways to accommodate the needs of caregivers with flexible work schedules.


"Flextime," as used here, refers to a variety of accommodations that may fit individual needs and business demands. It encompasses "4-10" work schedules (four 10-hour days a week), off-hour shifts, comp time, working from home, job sharing, etc. Obviously, the needs of your business must take top priority. Your work needs to be done and done well.

But when you think things through, ask yourself if it is really necessary for all work to be done at your office during traditional business hours? Certainly there are a lot of office chores that can be done off-site after hours. Most contractors know this to be true from their early experiences working for themselves. Daytime hours got devoted to billable labor, while the paperwork got filled out in the evening. Knowing this, is there any reason why bookkeepers have to be prisoners of the same daytime work shifts as your field crews? And is it absolutely necessary for them to come to the office every day to do their work when all of their spreadsheets and documents are accessible online?

Even people without care-giving responsibilities frequently like to work off-hours in order to avoid traffic tie-ups in so many metropolitan areas. I'm one of them.

Years ago, I got into the habit of leaving home at 6 a.m. so I could get to the office ahead of the morning rush. I've since moved to within a 15-minute drive of where I work and traffic is no longer much of a factor but I still like to get to the office early in order to enjoy a couple of hours of uninterrupted time before the mainstream of the working world wakes up. Numerous others feel the same way, judging from the number of early risers you can see crowded into Starbucks and other rooster-rousing stores that open at 5:00 a.m. or even earlier. (An unfortunate consequence is that traffic build-up seems to start earlier in most metro areas but that just means things would get closer to gridlock if everyone kept the traditional hours.)

Field crews are harder than office staff to accommodate with flextime but it's not impossible. Obviously, they can't telecommute and their working hours may be dictated by job site circumstances. But I've heard of plenty of construction crews given the opportunity to work 4-10s. People tend to like them because it gives them an extra day off each week and cuts down on the hassles of beating traffic. Opportunities also exist to cut some slack with comp time policies, i.e., giving someone a weekday off to be compensated by after-hours or Saturday work at regular pay.

Yes, such accommodations present challenges to the employer. Supervision can become problematic. Fairness issues arise if the same opportunities are not made available to all employees who might desire them. Productivity needs to be monitored to make sure it doesn't nosedive. But all of these issues need to be weighed against the costs associated with absenteeism, turnover, fatigue and all the other baggage resulting from rigid work schedules.

That "other baggage" doesn't always manifest itself directly in the form of unscheduled absences. People with care-giving responsibilities tend to spend a lot of time on the phone dealing with household issues while on job. They are susceptible to fatigue and poor morale, which lead to mistakes, accidents, conflicts and health problems. They may turn down promotions, overtime and special assignments. All of this creates its own set of hassles for a business.

Who gets it, who doesn't?

Flextime makes a lot of sense to a lot of people but resistance typically arises over the fairness issue. Contractors think that if they make special accommodations for one employee, others will want the same. There are several ways to address this issue.

First, ask yourself if it really is a problem. How many people in your company would want to work off-hour shifts or 4-10s? It's not for everyone. (Some union agreements require paying overtime to workers who put in more than eight hours in a day. Obviously, 4-10 shifts wouldn't be viable in such cases.)

Then ask, what would happen if a bunch of people did want the same flextime privileges? In some cases, maybe it could be done without disruption to business. If it does create some problems, then you have to decide whether certain individuals are important enough to justify a policy exception. If it's someone well respected by other employees, they'd probably be understanding in most cases, especially if it's in response to a health problem or care-giving situation. If the person in need of special consideration has a great deal of seniority, that makes it easier for co-workers to swallow.

The other major objection comes from the belief that people won't be as productive working from home or without supervision. This shouldn't be too hard to measure. If you can document that flextime beneficiaries aren't pulling their weight, then it's time for management to have a heart-to-heart talk with them just as they would any other slacking employee. Suggestions and goals can be set for improvement and if the problem persists, it may be necessary to reconsider the flextime arrangement.

However, what I think you'd find more often than not is that flextime workers would redouble their efforts to prove the arrangement can serve the common good. There aren't too many companies out there offering flextime, so people would have an incentive to do all they can to preserve the policy.

It's also worth noting that caregivers exhibit traits of humanity, dedication and responsibility. These tend to be the kind of people you want working for you. Treat them with consideration, and you are likely to benefit from their services for a long time.

Sidebar: Be a resource center

In addition to flextime alternatives, one of the best things an enlightened employer can do for care-giving associates is to become a clearinghouse of information about support services available. Numerous community and charitable organizations exist to assist with elder care, child care, nursing services and so on. Learn who provides these resources in your community, and get to know the people who run them. Often, you'll discover opportunities to trade off construction services in return for their assistance to your employees.

For starters, check out the National Family Caregivers Association, www.nfcacares.org. Another great resource is the Area Agency on Aging, www.loaa.org.