Court rules unpaid sick leave unconstitutional

It was a moment of satisfaction for the opposition on Wednesday when the Constitutional Court overturned a crucial part of the government’s healthcare reform package under which employees receive no sick pay in the first three days of illness. The court argued that the changed legislation, designed to prevent employees from abusing sick-leave benefits, was unconstitutional because it failed to guarantee an employee’s right to security in times of illness.

According to the recently introduced healthcare reforms, employees, who previously received 40% of their salary during the first three days of illness, receive absolutely nothing. The change was designed as a motivating measure to reduce the relatively high levels of sick leave in this country. Statistics suggest that Czechs spend on average twice as much time off work ill than other EU citizens.

In its ruling, the Constitutional Court argued that the unpaid sick-leave in the first three days of illness was a convenient but ineffective solution on the part of the state to limit the abuse of sickness benefits. The court declared that the law must be reversed by June 30. But Labour and Social Affairs Minister Petr Nečas argues that the number of short-term illnesses that usually occur at the end or at the beginning of a working week has considerably dropped since the introduction of the reform. He expects public spending to increase by 3-4 billion crowns as a result of the ruling.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
Mr Nečas said he was surprised by the ruling, arguing that similar measures had already been successfully implemented in 12 of the 15 oldest EU member states. “I respect the Constitutional Court’s verdict but I deeply disagree with it”, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said immediately after the ruling, adding that the government would now have to look for other measures to lower the rate of absenteeism. The chairman of the opposition Social Democrats, Jiří Paroubek, on the other hand, has welcomed the court’s decision which he described as a defeat for the government coalition, saying it was one of the worst parts of the reforms.

The ruling came as part of a wider lawsuit, in which the Social Democrats have challenged the constitutional legality of many reforms undertaken by the government. The Constitutional Court has been dealing with three parts of the reforms separately. Boosted by their recent success, the Social Democrats and the Communists are now awaiting a ruling on health-care fees, which they strongly oppose.