Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2015

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Sisolak offers proof of firefighters ‘gaming’ sick leave system

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

For months, Commissioner Steve Sisolak has accused Clark County firefighters of “gaming” the sick-leave system as a way to bolster one another’s overtime pay.

Now, he said, he has proof.

“I don’t know what else you can call it,” Sisolak said. “They learn this stuff as young firefighters and keep doing it.”

He said his proof comes from his request this summer that county administrators check how a new Fire Department policy is working to keep down overtime costs. The policy went into effect in May and is fairly simple.

Previously, the department always kept three battalion chiefs — only nine firefighters have reached that rank — on duty at all times. When one “batt chief” called in sick, the department called in another one to fill that spot. The battalion chief called in would receive either overtime or callback pay; callback is overtime plus a contribution to his or her retirement fund, and results from someone calling in sick within 12 hours of the start of his or her shift.

On May 26, the policy changed. Now, when a battalion chief calls in sick, the department operates with two, saving overtime or callback cost of summoning a third.

At the time, the Fire Department expected this policy to save about $150,000 annually.

To see if it was working, a 12-week period was compared with the same period in 2009.

Officials found sick-leave use fell 80 percent.

The county also found that even though battalion chiefs used less sick leave, they took 24 percent more vacation and bonus-leave time. The county pays overtime when filling in for someone on vacation or using bonus leave, so overtime expenses for battalion chiefs remained at about $12,500 every two weeks.

Sisolak thinks the battalion chiefs work together to bolster one another’s overtime pay. So when sick leave didn’t work anymore, they simply used more vacation and bonus-leave time for days off. (Bonus leave is accrued at different rates if a firefighter doesn’t use as much sick leave.)

“It’s clear people were taking sick leave who were not sick,” he said. “This is the kind of thing they learn as Cub Scouts (new firefighters) and carry it on throughout Boy Scouts (senior ranking firefighters).”

If there’s any silver lining to this, Sisolak said, it’s that the county will save in the long run. “Given the huge increase in the use of vacation and bonus leave, it will be hard for them to maintain that level of use.”

Fire Chief Steve Smith was noncommittal about the 80 percent reduction in sick days.

“Since we implemented the policy, there has been a reduction in sick leave,” said Smith, who retired Friday.

Getting at sick-leave abuse has been difficult, he added, because the union contract states that someone has to be sick for more than three shifts in a row, and there has to be suspicion of abuse, before administrators can challenge him.

In their defense, Smith also noted that sick-leave use by battalion chiefs isn’t the same across the board. County salary data from fiscal year 2009, for instance, show that three battalion chiefs used more than 324 hours of sick leave, three didn’t use any, and three used fewer than 72 hours.

In that year, the nine battalion chiefs averaged total compensation, retirement and benefits of $288,785, including $25,560 in overtime and $19,421 in callback pay.

“I do think this is a few people manipulating the system, but how big that few is, we have to know and it’s got to stop,” Sisolak said. “Other guys are made to suffer for the action of a few. At the same time, they should police their own. They all know what’s going on.”

He thinks the practice happens throughout the Fire Department with lower-ranking firefighters. County administrators, however, cannot easily change sick-leave policies for firefighters because minimum staffing requirements are written into their union contract. The battalion chiefs’ contract had no minimum staffing demands.

Sisolak has said that when union contract talks are completed, he will ask for a full audit of the department’s sick-leave use.

The county’s contract with the battalion chiefs won’t be up for renewal until 2011.

Even so, the union has filed a grievance with the county asking that it reinstate the old policy to have three battalion chiefs on duty, even if someone calls in sick.

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