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August 29, 2015

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County considers seeking reimbursement over firefighter sick leave abuse

Sick leave abuse

KSNV coverage of County Commission's continuing investigation into alleged fire department sick leave abuse, Feb. 15, 2011.

Clark County is continuing to investigate abuse of sick leave in the fire department and is looking into the possibility of seeking reimbursement from the firefighters’ retirement program.

Assistant County Manager Ed Finger gave an update to county commissioners Tuesday on the use of sick leave in the fire department. In their last meeting, Finger presented evidence to commissioners that some firefighters have abused the sick-leave policy.

Finger said the county has implemented new administrative procedures for sick leave use, which he said will prevent abuse.

He also said the county is reviewing the possibility of adjusting firefighters’ pension payments with the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System if an investigation shows that a firefighters abused the system.

However, while the county has employee e-mails that suggest some firefighters preplanned sick leave and coordinated their use of leave with other people, proving a particular person was or wasn’t sick on any given day is difficult to do, Finger said.

“The vast majority of e-mails, in my opinion, were circumstantial, and there’s probably very little opportunity to say those e-mails in some way would directly result in our adjusting wages or pensions wages,” Finger said.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who has been the most critical of firefighters on the commission, told Finger the county might not be able to prove it, but law enforcement agencies can.

Sisolak previously said he has asked Metro Police, the FBI and the district attorney’s office to investigate the use of sick leave and callback in the department.

Finger said there is some precedence for getting reimbursements from PERS. A few years ago, the county investigated the use of callback, when a firefighter is called in to work on short notice, and discovered the county had paid into some firefighters’ retirement funds for time that wasn’t eligible.

The county ended up getting more than $800,000 back from PERS, Finger said.

In a theoretical example, Sisolak said a firefighter could get as much as $2.4 million in extra pay if he or she lived several years after retiring.

Finger said the county’s efforts to prove abuse of the system were intended to show an arbitrator that the firefighters’ contract needed to be changed to give county administrators more tools to combat the abuse.

That was accomplished when the arbitrator chose the county’s proposed contract, which allows management to request a doctor’s note when a firefighter uses more than five sick days a year. The old contract required a firefighter to call in sick four consecutive shifts before a note could be required.

“We’re focused on the future, we’re focused on making sure it doesn’t happen again,” Finger said.

Commissioner Larry Brown said that while he supports investigating abuse, he doesn’t want the county to get lost looking backward. He said the county needs to work to create a culture of transparency and confidence in all of the government, including the fire department.

Sisolak directed county staff to work with law enforcement agencies investigating abuse and said he hoped the firefighters’ union would do the same.

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