Las Vegas Sun

December 8, 2016

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Under microscope, county firefighters taking less sick leave

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

About six months after an arbitrator pointed out what he thought was obvious misuse of the sick-leave system, and after Clark County adopted stricter rules, firefighters aren’t calling in sick nearly as much as they used to.

New county numbers show significant declines in sick-leave use across the board, but especially in the more isolated fire stations at McCarran International Airport and Laughlin.

The average number of sick-leave hours totaled at the Laughlin station fell 61 percent per pay period compared with 2010. At McCarran, sick-leave use per pay period fell 59 percent.

Across the department, sick-leave use this calendar year has fallen 32 percent on average per pay period. County staff estimates the declines will save taxpayers about $2.5 million if they continue. Meanwhile, it could cut into the average Clark County firefighter compensation package that averaged more than $180,000 each in 2010.

Sick leave at McCarran and Laughlin stations had been attacked by Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who alleged firefighters in those stations had a better chance to work with each other to “game” the system. When a firefighter calls in sick, his replacement is typically paid overtime and sometimes receives “callback” benefits, which include contributions to his retirement account.

Sisolak’s argument was strengthened when firefighter emails surfaced during arbitration hearings over the union’s contract. The emails showed some firefighters asking for sick days months ahead. That revelation led to Metro Police and FBI investigations. Sources say the ongoing investigations includes poring over 2 million firefighter emails spanning several years.

So far, the Fire Department let go of one firefighter but more firings or other disciplinary actions are expected.

McCarran and Laughlin fire stations weren’t the only areas to witness a sick-leave drop. Among administrators — comprising mostly vehicle and equipment specialists — sick leave fell 75 percent from 2010 to 2011, although this group had used a less-than-average four days per year, and are now averaging a little more than one day per year. County administrators think that is isolated and largely because of a single long-term illness. Sick leave among the Fire Department’s investigators fell 74 percent. A difference among investigators and others is that when an investigator calls in sick, the department is not required to find a substitute, so overtime and callback pay are avoided.

In the department’s training sector, sick-leave use fell 36 percent, and it fell 26 percent among personnel assigned to “suppression,” which includes the majority of the firefighters.

After the emails between firefighters and their battalion chiefs surfaced this year, the county adopted rules intended to clamp down on sick-leave use. Deputy chiefs, not battalion chiefs, now handle sick leave, and county management is also reviewing sick-leave requests. Also, firefighters previously did not have to produce documentation of an illness or a “doctor’s note” unless they had been sick for four consecutive shifts. Now documentation is required if they are sick more than five times a year.

Finally, the union added tougher language to the contract approved this year that a firefighter who does not provide doctor’s excuses will be put on a disciplinary track that could lead to termination, county officials said.

“It’s obvious the new guidelines are working,” Sisolak said.

County Manager Don Burnette said the trend is a good one.

“These are positive changes, and we’re encouraged by our experience over the last six months,” he said.

He should be. Since late January, the county won over an independent arbitrator who approved its version of its 2010-11 contract with firefighters. In doing so, firefighter compensation was cut by $7.1 million annually. In June, the commission approved the firefighters’ 2011-12 contract that included another $4 million in savings. In addition, the county expects sick-leave use to keep falling, which means additional overtime savings.

Even Commissioner Tom Collins, a stalwart firefighter defender, didn’t strongly criticize the new figures.

“It appears firefighters are being more diligent about their sick-leave use,” Collins said. “They aren’t being so casual about it because they’re under the microscope by their supervisors. That’s a good thing.”

He added he thinks some will come to work even if they don’t feel well “because they are pretty scared and nervous” about the oversight. “They’re disciplining themselves, to some degree.”

At the same time, he likes what he sees from Fire Department managers, who are being more cooperative about letting a firefighter take a vacation day or trading a day when someone really is sick, which could also help cut back on sick-leave use and abuse. “So I give management some credit, too.”

“I don’t think sick leave is going to fall much further,” he added. “I think it’s near the bottom.”

But he said he’d still be wary “because we know if we get complacent, they will take advantage of it again. We can’t let that happen.”

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