Chapter 13:

Updated as of June 2006



Absenteeism became a major concern to the American public during World War II. Companies then found themselves rapidly increasing in size and in the number of employees required to maintain war production standards. Industry's increased need for labor and the tightening pool of available employees emphasized absenteeism's impact on productivity, and focused attention toward solving the absenteeism problem.

However, due to data collection problems, national statistics on absenteeism were not consistently available even into the early 1970's. In 1971, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conducted a feasibility study to determine whether an absenteeism survey would produce a valid report. The study revealed that less than two-fifths of all workers were employed in firms that kept records on job attendance, a problem that has impeded the development of most absenteeism surveys. The Bureau of Labor Statistics survey was never conducted, as the agency was not willing to invest time in a statistical study with an inadequate database. However, to supply some information BLS has made job absence information available through its website,, utilizing data from the current population survey conducted by the census.

Feasibility studies conducted by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) indicated some increase in the number of companies keeping attendance records. Since 1974, BNA has conducted surveys measuring monthly absence and turnover rates. Information compiled from the survey findings is now released quarterly and provides national data on job attendance rates, with breakouts of the data by number of employees, industry and region.

The sample contains a disproportionate number of large firms, as compared to a random sample of American firms. Therefore, smaller companies may not find this information as relevant to their absenteeism problems as those organizations with over one hundred employees.

The lack of useable absence data is still a major pitfall in developing a study that is useful in determining what absence rates are acceptable for a particular organization. Data remains scarce because the companies that keep attendance information use different methods of measuring absenteeism, so that data collected from individual firms is not comparable and cannot be combined into a report. The discrepancy between methods of measurement lies in the definition of job absence itself, as there is no universally accepted rule as to how to classify an absence. The definition of absenteeism constitutes another problem, through limiting the utility of absence rate studies to those organizations that use the same method of measuring absenteeism as was used in the report.

There appears to be three general distinctions used in classifying absences for record keeping, although adoptions of these classifications probably exist in as many numbers, as the companies who maintain absence records.

Illness and Injury / Other Reasons

The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies absences as either illness and injury or other reasons for its current population survey reports. The illness and injury classification is health related and refers to absences due to a disability, whether job related or not, and includes doctor and dentist appointments. The other reason classification refers to absences for personal reasons or civic duties, such as bereavement leave, childcare, automobile maintenance, jury duty, military leave and voting.

Scheduled / Unscheduled

The Bureau of National Affairs distinguishes between scheduled and unscheduled absences in their surveys on absenteeism. This quarterly report includes only unscheduled absences, defined as those absences that are unplanned and cause disruption in workflow or productivity. For example, long-term absences continuing beyond four days, for any reason, are not counted as unscheduled absences, as plans to compensate for the absence are usually made by that time. Unscheduled absences have no relationship to excused or paid absences.

Excused / Unexcused

Several companies classify their absences as excused or unexcused absences. The difference between excused or unexcused absences varies from company to company; the only distinction is provided through the discipline (usually a warning or docked pay) that results in what the organization deems as an unexcused absence. These types of absences are sometimes termed controllable or uncontrollable. Controllable absences are those resulting from tardiness, leaving work early, personal or unknown reasons, or whenever the absence occurs according to the employee's discretion. Uncontrollable absences are defined as absences where vacation, bereavement, jury duty or disability is involved.

Basic Formulas

In the reports of absences published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, absences are defined as instances when persons who usually work 35 or more hours a week worked less than 35 hours during the reference week for one of the following reasons: Own illness, injury, or medical problems; child-care problems; other family or personal obligations; civic or military duty; and maternity or paternity leave. Excluded are situations in which work was missed due to vacation or personal days, holiday, labor dispute, and other reasons. For multiple jobholders, absence data refer only to work missed at their main jobs. There are two basic measurements: 1) The absence rate which is the ratio of workers with absences to total full-time wage and salary employment. 2) The lost worktime rate which is expressed as hours absent as a percent of hours usually worked.