April 5, 1998
Shirkers Unite! Tomorrow Is Your Day
Productivity as the Catalyst of Prosperity Murphy's Law of the Podium The New York Times: Your Money
By SARAH LYALL
tuck in a dead-end job? Spend your days answering the phone, fetching cappuccino for your superiors and making abstract sculptures of paper clips?
Why not do your bit for the oppressed workers of the world and call in sick tomorrow?
At least that is what a group called Rtmark, whose name is a joke version of "registered trademark," suggests. In announcing what it says is the first "Phone In Sick Day" in the United States, the group, a shadowy anti-corporate organization based in California, is urging people to show their dissatisfaction with the rat race by playing hooky from the office.
"The capitalist world treats humans as machines, so why shouldn't we treat them as machines, too?" said a spokesman for the group, who identified himself only as Ray T.
Mr. T., who plans to come down tomorrow with a fake illness that will keep him away from his own job at a law firm, says he is optimistic that thousands of people will likewise phone in sick. A prominent supporter of the action is Andrei Codrescu, the National Public Radio commentator and poet, who announced in a recent on-the-air commentary that he planned to not work tomorrow, especially if he felt particularly well.
In an interview, Codrescu said that on his day of nonwork, he planned "to get up without any idea of what I'm going to do or where I'm going to end up -- take a few buses to nowhere, maybe having romantic or violent adventures along the way."
Codrescu's unstructured day will not affect his work at NPR, though; Ellen Weiss, the executive producer of "All Things Considered," the program on which he is featured, said he had already submitted his next two commentaries.
The American phone-in sick day is part of a larger worldwide campaign led by Decadent Action -- a British group that calls itself a "consumer terrorist organization" -- which called for a one-day sickout last year in Britain.
It is not clear how effective the action was, though the group contended that 2,000 workers at British Airways called in sick.
A spokeswoman for British Airways said that the company "had no record of that," but added that 2,000 to 3,000 employees did phone in sick during a work stoppage a couple of months later, and that perhaps the group was just taking credit.
What is the point of calling in sick?
"Generally, work is something everybody hates," said a spokesman for Decadent Action, who identified himself only as Ian H. "It's the working class that hates their jobs the most because they have the least power, the lowest wages and the least interesting jobs."
By refusing to work, said Mr. H., who is now unemployed after three years as a civil servant in London, even the lowliest workers can demonstrate that they hold economic power.
For every sick day in Britain, employers lose between $112 and $128 in average wages for each worker, as well as two to three times as much in lost production and labor value, Decadent Action said. Last year, the group said, Britain lost 187 million working days to sickness.
"Currently, phoning in sick in the country costs between $19.2 billion and $20.8 billion a year," he said proudly. Rtmark estimates that sick days in the United States cost employers "hundreds of billions of dollars," but there's no official tally.
One problem with calling in sick, though, is how lame an excuse sounds. "If you kill off your grandmother more than three times your boss might get suspicious," Mr. H. said. "Back pain is great, because it's not provable by either your doctor or your boss," he continued. "Things like depression are hard to prove or disprove, and it's fairly easy to fake the symptoms."
An unearned day of rest will be most effective, of course, for people who don't have a lot to lose -- people who aren't raising families or paying off mortgages, for instance.
But Rtmark says that even people who must go to work can make the most of the day by sabotaging their job from within. Some steps it suggests include ordering subscriptions, in the boss's name, to munitions magazines and speaking "in a bad English accent all day."
Business groups in the United States shrugged off the attempt at insurrection. Joe Davis, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, "Our response to those guys who are doing the national phone-in sick day: Get a job."