Today's Wall Street Journal looks at the epidemic of healthy sick people in Belgium (i.e. people with hangovers bilking the government and their employers by taking advantage of the country's overly generous sick leave policies). In a Hit & Run post last year, I mentioned that, according to OECD figures, Sweden is one of the healthiest countries in Europe, yet its citizens topped the tables in accrued sick days. Odd, that.
Back in June, I offered the following anecdote from Sweden: "An acquaintance of mine in Stockholm was on sick leave for six months, collecting three-quarters of his salary after his girlfriend left him, rendering him "burned out"—utmattningssyndrom—and incapable of work." Well, according to the Journal, brokenhearted Belgians are also forcing the government to underwrite bad relationship decisions.
Mr. Lombard's method found a recent subject in Fabrice Vandervelpen, a 36-year-old manager at a frozen-vegetable packing plant in southern Belgium. In September, he called in sick. His girlfriend of six months had just left him, he says. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with depression and certified him for medical leave.
Mr. Vandervelpen says he spent his first two weeks off writing poetry at his parents' home, where he lives. His mother, Marie-Jane, often took him shopping for new clothes, she says. He played soccer again with his local club, FC Burdinne, and volunteered as club treasurer. He visited a Catholic shrine in Banneux, Belgium, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1933.
In November, Mr. Vandervelpen bought a bright red Alfa Romeo MiTo for $30,000. Zipping through the hills and sugar-beet fields in his new car made him feel better, he says. He visited his ex-girlfriend and went to parties…
If the law didn't mandate paid sick leave, he would have gone back to work sooner, says Mr. Vandervelpen. Hesbaye Frost paid his full salary for the first month he was off. After that, a government-backed insurance company picked up 80% of his salary, which the law guarantees indefinitely. "The government keeps €1,000 [about $1,357] a month in taxes off me, so why shouldn't I get help when I don't feel well?" he asks. He makes €2,500 before taxes.
According to the Journal, a number of Belgian government agencies "were averaging 35 days of paid sick leave per employee each year, more than twice the national rate and seven times the U.S. average," before authorities cracked down on the cheats. And remember, Belgian workers are already the beneficiaries of four weeks of statutory vacation. With a less generous welfare state, perhaps the great Plastic Bertrand would find it necessary to start recording again. In the meantime, we can only rewatch YouTube videos of the greatest song to ever come out of Brussels, "Ça plane pour moi."