Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Clark County firefighters’ use of sick leave falls by 57,000 hours

Updated Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 5 p.m.

Since county officials began questioning firefighters’ use of sick leave two years ago, sick-leave requests in the Clark County Fire Department have fallen by 57,000 hours.

A county report obtained in response to a Sun request found that within those 57,000 hours, battalion chiefs’ sick leave fell from an average of 164 hours a year two years ago to about 16 hours last year, a 90 percent decline.

For rank-and-file firefighters, the average hours of sick leave taken fell from 227 hours two years ago to 136 hours last year, a 40 percent drop.

The staggering decline has saved Clark County millions of dollars. Although firefighters are still paid while out sick, the department saved on the cost of an additional firefighter to fill in at overtime rates, which sometimes includes payments into the employees’ retirement account.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who had accused firefighters of gaming the system, often taking sick leave in order to help colleagues obtain higher overtime pay, said Thursday: “This just goes to show that the abuse was even greater than I anticipated, especially with battalion chiefs. Though not as many were disciplined as I thought could have been, the fact is the county is now saving millions and millions of dollars. We achieved what we wanted to do.”

A spokesman for the fire fighters’ union also could not be immediately reached for comment

The issue of sick leave was first written about in the Sun two years ago. But it wasn’t until an independent contract arbitrator expressed his concerns about sick-leave use within the department in January 2011 that county administrators changed sick-leave rules.

“Some employees use sick leave as vacation, scheduling themselves to be ‘sick’ months in advance. This improper use of sick leave is evident from e-mails the (Fire) Department recovered,” arbitrator Norman Brand wrote in his decision about the contract.

The county is again in contract negotiations with the firefighters union.

The amount of sick-leave firefighters asked for fell almost immediately after that decision. By July 2011, sick-leave use fell 32 percent on average per pay period.

By August 2011, the county finished an investigation into potential sick-leave abuse. A battalion chief and a firefighters stationed in Laughlin were let go.

New sick leave rules were also put into place. Deputy chiefs, not battalion chiefs, were ordered to handle sick leave requests, with county management as a backup. Firefighters calling in sick more than five times a year now need a “doctor’s note,” where before they only needed that kind of proof if they called in sick on four consecutive shifts.

Firefighter overtime pay has been a contentious issue for years in the county. The union has said the county decries overtime but then doesn’t staff the department with enough firefighters, which makes high overtime numbers impossible to avoid.

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