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It's a time-honored ritual for many workers: The early-morning phone call to their boss requesting a day off when they're feeling under the weather.

However, these calls -- and the guilt trips from hard-bitten bosses who challenge whether they're truly sick enough to miss work -- are a relic from the past for a number of employees.

A growing list of employers are allowing workers to send an e-mail, log into a website or call into an automated voice-messaging system when they want to take a sick day.

The technology makes it easier for employers to track abuse. But it's also possible that it's easier to take a sick day, legitimately or not, if workers don't have to talk to someone.

"I think [electronic communication] makes it easier to deliver bad news, or to deceive people," said Michael Stefanone, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo who studies how people interact online.

Further, some companies and governments are offering incentives to workers who don't use all of their paid sick time. Erie County, for example, pays a $500 bonus to non-union workers who don't use more than one sick day in a year.

And some companies and institutions are bundling all of their workers' paid time off -- vacation days, personal days and sick days -- into one pot. Employees can take these days when they want, with certain limits, ending the need to call in sick and taking the boss out of a sick-day policing role.

"They've gained a lot of favor in the 1990s, because employers got sick of being the sheriff about whether you're sick or not," said Joseph L. Braccio, a partner with Hodgson Russ and head of the firm's labor employment, immigration and employee benefits practice areas.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 39 percent of private-sector employees don't have paid sick days.

For those who do enjoy this benefit, the number of sick days given varies considerably, from as few as five per year to as many as 15, The Buffalo News found in an informal survey of large local employers.

American workers in 2007 took an average of 14 days off because of their own illness or the illness of a child, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The policies, or practices, differ from employer to employer.

The City of Niagara Falls, Town of Amherst, Hodgson Russ law firm and M&T Bank require employees to speak to or leave a phone message for a supervisor.

Erie County workers who belong to the Civil Service Employees Association, the county's largest union, must call a supervisor at least 30 minutes before the start of their shift.

The average county employee uses 11 sick days per year, said John W. Greenan, the county's personnel commissioner.

Greenan said the county encourages management-confidential employees to not call in sick by offering a $500 bonus to those who don't use more than one sick day in a year. Of the 330 employees eligible for the bonus, 70 received it at the end of 2010, he said.

In fact, 17 percent of companies offer an incentive to encourage employees not to take sick days or other unscheduled time off, according to a 2008 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management.

Rich Products is one locally based company that places vacation, personal and sick days into one pool of paid days off from which employees can draw as they desire.

Employees receive 18 paid days off in their first year at the company, and earn five more every five years they stay, said Julie Sheldon, a Rich Products human resources generalist.

Some area employers are turning to technology to make it easier to call in sick -- and to replace workers who are out. Teachers in the Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Williamsville school districts use automated systems to report absences, by leaving voice-mail messages or logging into a website.

Teachers in those districts receive between 17 and 20 paid days off per year, including sick and personal days.

Most employees are honest when it comes to sick days, but a small number take them to enjoy some "me" time, to attend a concert or to play golf.

"They'll game the system to the best of their ability," Braccio said. The Hodgson Russ partner said an increasing number of employers are challenging workers suspected of sick-day abuse, requesting documentation or putting those employees under surveillance.

David Wiles, who has been with Erie County's Department of Social Services for about 16 years, said he uses between four and six sick days per year and has accumulated about eight weeks of sick days.

He said most employees don't burn through their sick days, but he does know some workers who have been with the county as long as he's been there who don't have any left-over days.

"I've been very good about it. I come from the private sector," Wiles said during a lunch break interview at the Main Place Mall food court. He said he received three sick days a year when he worked at Lender's Bagels and none when he managed a convenience store.

Kim Henrich also came from a job where she didn't get paid sick days. She now works for Stewart Title and receives 10 sick days per year.

She is careful about using her sick days, and her caution came in handy when she caught pneumonia last fall and had to take three weeks off from work.

"What if you really get sick and you don't have them?" she said from a nearby table.

Abuse of sick days is hard to quantify. Twenty-nine percent of workers surveyed by CareerBuilder in fall 2010 admitted to taking a bogus sick day at least once last year. Are workers who can request a sick day through e-mail or an automated system taking more?

Administrators in the school districts that use the automated systems say the systems make it easier to spot sick-day misuse, and any such abuse is rare.

Sick days taken on Fridays or Mondays, or on days after holidays or big sporting events can raise suspicions and prompt follow-up from supervisors.

"Certainly it's easier to talk to a computer and type into a computer that you're not going to be into work," said Kim Kirsch, the assistant superintendent for human resources in Williamsville. "We pay attention to it. We look at patterns and we look at frequency."

A Buffalo schools study found elementary and middle-school teachers took an average of 12 sick days and two personal days in 2009-10, while high-school teachers took 13 sick days and two personal days, said Mark Frazier, the district's lead community superintendent.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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>Sick time, by the numbers

• The average American worker took 14 sick days in 2007.

• The average Erie County employee receives 15 sick days per year and uses 11.

• Teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools receive 12 sick days per year. Elementary and middle school teachers used an average of 12 sick days in 2009-10, while high school teachers used 13.

• 29 percent of workers admitted calling in sick when they weren't feeling ill at least once in 2010.

• 27 percent of employers believe they saw an increase last year in fake sick-day excuses from employees due to stress and burnout generated by ongoing economic woes.

• 29 percent of employers said they had checked up on an employee who called in sick and 16 percent said they had fired a worker for taking off work without providing acceptable proof.

Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human