Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2015

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Under scrutiny, firefighter sick leave falls

Year-to-year pay-period comparison is further evidence of firefighters’ abuse of the system, commissioner says

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Firefighters: Game over.

In the two pay periods since an arbitrator agreed with Clark County that firefighters appeared to be treating sick leave like vacation days, their use of sick leave has fallen 46 percent.

At the fire station at McCarran International Airport, where firefighters appeared to have made a fine art of gaming the system, sick leave plummeted 83 percent.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, leader of the fight to abolish sick-leave abuse — which drives up overtime costs, which may trigger more taxpayer contributions to retirement accounts — said it’s more proof that the men and women of the department had been scamming the system.

“It’s more clear and convincing evidence of a pattern to take sick leave when it wasn’t appropriate,” Sisolak said. “Under scrutiny, they’ve obviously curtailed taking sick leave. It’s a sign to the sheriff and the district attorney and the FBI that there’s been a problem.”

He said the FBI and Metro Police are trying to determine if criminal investigations are warranted.

In 2009, 231 firefighters missed a month or more of work due to sick leave, while another dozen spent three months on sick leave, according to county records. (Firefighters work 10 shifts per month — 24 hours each — meaning that the 231 called in sick at least 10 times a year.) E-mail among firefighters and their supervisors showed some were planning sick leaves far in advance, and combining them with vacation time. Such machinations in turn activated extensive overtime for those filling in for “sick” firefighters, evidence Sisolak says shows some were manipulating the system coming and going.

In a memo obtained by the Sun, Assistant County Manager Ed Finger compared sick-leave use in two 2011 pay periods to the same periods in 2010. This year’s pay periods occurred right after an independent arbitrator granted the Fire Department greater control in managing sick leave.

Fire administrators can now demand a doctor’s note if an employee calls in sick five times in a year; previously, the note was required only if four consecutive sick days were used.

Additionally, fire battalion chiefs — some of whom, by e-mail, approved requests by other battalion chiefs seeking sick days months ahead of time — no longer handle those requests. Also, county managers, human resources, the fire chief and deputy chiefs will review sick-leave use regularly.

New County Manager Don Burnette has also said sick-leave abusers will forfeit six months, equal to 144 hours, of sick time, and serious abusers may be fired or demoted.

After exposure of the problem and the potential punishments of abusers, county officials expected sick-leave use to fall.

And it did.

In a memo to county commissioners, Finger reported:

• Airport firefighters used 83 percent less sick leave.

• Sick leave among fire investigators fell 67 percent.

• Sick leave at the Laughlin station fell 63 percent. (Measures to save money also reduced Laughlin’s staff 29 percent in July.)

• Among the suppression units, sick leave fell 40 percent and, among fire prevention officers, 36 percent.

Sisolak said the drop in the use of sick leave is evidence — not just a smoking gun but “bullets you can put in the gun” — that firefighters were abusing the system and have now stopped because they were caught.

“This is no coincidence,” he said. “This is a shame. And it’s not everyone, but they are making everyone in the department look bad.”

To the commissioner, the airport and Laughlin sick-leave declines are red flags possibly indicative of “collusion” among firefighters, as those stations are essentially closed working groups: Airport firefighters are specially trained and can only substitute for sick airport firefighters, and Laughlin is 100 miles south of Las Vegas. “So those firefighters substitute only for each other and might work out their sick days to build up overtime for each other,” he said.

Not everyone thinks that way, however. Commissioner Tom Collins hardly thinks two pay periods are enough to reach any kind of conclusion. “What will it be in six months? That’s where you get a better measure.”

He figured some firefighters are now cutting back on sick leave even if they have legitimate reasons to take it because “they know they are under the microscope.”

Then he tore into Sisolak, accusing him of grandstanding for the media and of “throwing Clark County under the bus.”

“He’s got an agenda to get his name out there because the county has always had the authority to take any case they wanted to the district attorney right now,” Collins said. “They’ve got the opportunity and they should have the morals to bring a case to the DA if they think they have a case.”

County and fire management, he added, “has allowed the culture to exist that allows for this kind of thing. It’s just been ... poor management.”

Sisolak said he was perplexed but not angered by Collins’ comments.

He disagreed that the county has had the tools all along to attack sick-leave abuse, saying the tools are available now, but only because of the arbitrator’s decision.

“There simply wasn’t the ability before to do this and now there is,” he said. “So that’s what we’re starting to do, get it taken care of.”

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