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October 9, 2015

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county government:

Sources: Firefighter sick-leave probe will leave 1 jobless, 16 disciplined

Action follows internal investigation; union likely to challenge decision


Sam Morris

A firefighter checks the stability of a roof after an eastern valley apartment fire in this 2010 file photo. Sources said one firefighter will be fired and 16 will face disciplinary action following an investigation into sick-leave policy abuses.

Firefighter sick leave

KSNV report by Sun reporter Joe Schoenmann on pending discipline Clark County firefighters face over alleged abuse of sick leave, May 12, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Steve Sisolak

One Clark County firefighter will be fired for abusing sick leave and 16 others will be disciplined.

According to several sources, the disciplinary actions follow an internal investigation by county and Fire Department administrators. Sources did not know the specifics of the discipline faced by the 16 firefighters who won’t be terminated.

County administrators refused to discuss the moves with the Sun, noting such issues are confidential personnel matters.

Union representatives could not be reached.

Sources, however, said more information about the discipline is likely to be made public over the next week. They also said the firing and other disciplinary actions will likely be challenged by the firefighter union.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who a year ago called firefighters the “gold medalists” of gaming the sick-leave system, said Thursday he had not been told of the disciplinary action.

But, he added, it “shows that the county is taking the sick-leave abuse and the fraud perpetrated on the taxpayers seriously. And this should serve as a notice to citizens that we do take these allegations extremely seriously,” he said.

“Those who have been gaming the system, be aware that we’re going to be looking for you,” he said.

Allegations that county firefighters have abused the sick-leave system have been floated for more than a year.

First reported by the Sun, the allegations surfaced in a March 2010 Clark County compensation study that found the average number of shifts taken off for sick leave by roughly 700 firefighters came to almost twice as many as rank-and-file employees and about four times those of management.

Sick-leave abuse was also cited as one reason Fire Department overtime is so high. The union disputed that, saying overtime levels are a consequence of minimum staffing requirements combined with the county’s unwillingness to hire more firefighters.

Yet a fire station like the one at McCarran International Airport is closed to firefighters from other stations because those firefighters have specialized training. Sisolak noted it would be easier for the relatively small group at the airport of figuring out schedules ahead of time to ensure co-workers pick up extra overtime.

In 2009, the average overtime worked by airport firefighters was 859 hours (they work in 24-hour shifts, so that represents about 36 shifts).

Rank-and-file firefighters weren’t the only ones accused of cheating the system. In September, county officials found that sick leave by battalion chiefs fell dramatically after a new policy was implemented months earlier.

The policy worked like this: Normally, three battalion chiefs are on duty at all times. That means if one called in sick, another “batt-chief” had to be called to fill in. The new policy said if a batt-chief calls in sick, the department will operate with just two. During 12 weeks under the new policy compared with the same 12 weeks in 2009, batt-chief sick leave fell 80 percent.

Sisolak said the incentive to call in sick to give each other more overtime had disappeared so they called in less.

The most conclusive judgement on sick leave occurred earlier this year. An independent arbitrator from California wrote that “some employees use sick leave as vacation, scheduling themselves to be ‘sick’ months in advance.”

Moreover, wrote arbitrator Norman Brand, “it appears some firefighters may deliberately call in late to turn the overtime opportunity into a callback/overtime opportunity.”

Sisolak wrote letters to Metro and the FBI after that asking for investigations into sick-leave abuse as potential criminal activity. Sources say those investigations are expected to be wrapped up in the next few weeks.

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