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December 1, 2022

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Sisolak calls for investigation of firefighter sick leave

Steve Sisolak

Steve Marcus

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, shown in this file photo from last year, is calling for an investigation into firefighter sick leave.

In 2009, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak began looking hard at Fire Department costs. He had received a deluge of angry calls and e-mails from constituents wondering why the unionized firefighters weren’t accepting salary or benefits reductions as the county dealt with budget cuts and the local economy continued its slide.

“Everybody was losing their jobs, their homes,” Sisolak said.

For much of that year, he was the only commissioner willing to criticize their salaries, benefits and retirement packages that averaged about $180,000 in 2009.

In retaliation, members of the union showed up at Sisolak’s public meetings to glare at him. He said he received death threats, which prompted county administrators to post park police at commission meetings. A city firefighter posted on Facebook that she’d like to shoot him.

This week brought a measure of vindication for Sisolak in his fight with the union after an arbitrator broke a stalemate in negotiations by deciding the county’s contract offer was better than the firefighter union’s offer.

Sisolak said he was happy. “I’m not done, though,” he added.

Late Thursday, he sent letters to the FBI, Metro Police, Clark County district attorney and others seeking an investigation into potentially criminal acts of racketeering and fraud by firefighters. Sisolak has long alleged that firefighters are abusing the sick-leave system to rack up overtime pay.

After reading the arbitrator’s 26-page decision, he is more determined than ever to have his suspicion investigated. He pointed specifically to one part of the decision:

“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. “Second, it appears some firefighters may deliberately call in late to turn the overtime opportunity into a callback/overtime opportunity.”

Callback pay is more valuable than overtime because it pays overtime plus a contribution to a firefighter’s pension.

In his letter, Sisolak said if more than one firefighter has been involved in sick-leave scamming, it might represent a violation of the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act.

Union President Ryan Beaman could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

The Sun’s Jon Ralston reported Thursday that the union said any abuses are isolated, not systemic.

Sisolak first alleged sick-leave abuse in March, after the Sun reported firefighters use more than twice as much sick leave as most other county employees.

Months later, Sisolak offered what he called proof after the Fire Department adopted a policy in mid-2010 to slow overtime pay for sick leave: Instead of requiring three battalion chiefs to be on duty at all times, only two were required if a third called in sick.

If someone called in sick, no one else was being called in to make overtime wages.

Over a 12-week period, sick-leave use by battalion chiefs fell 80 percent compared with the same 12 weeks in 2009.

In his decision, Brand used examples of the worst abusers, which he gleaned from county documents.

The “chief abuser,” he said, was a firefighter who called in sick 48 days — but never four days in a row, which would have required he provide certification of illness. The man worked 92 overtime/callback shifts. In 2009, Brand wrote, “he used sick leave and overtime to earn $232,187.”

From county salary records, this fire engineer had a base pay of about $85,000, plus $99,000 for overtime and $3,000 in call-back, plus other benefits.

In second place was a colleague who worked in the same fire station: He earned a total of $233,580, including $95,000 in base pay, $63,000 for overtime and $23,000 in call-back, plus other benefits.

Current policy only requires a certification of illness after four sick-leave days in a row. Brand agreed with the county’s suggestion to change the policy to require a certification after “five unexcused absences in a year, even if they aren’t consecutive.”

“This is complete and total vindication for what I’ve been saying,” Sisolak said Thursday. “If someone is cheating the system to get extra money, it’s no different than stealing.”

Brand’s decision went beyond sick leave and dissected a union assertion from 2009 that it had a tentative agreement with the county on some cost concessions. At the time, the county said that wasn’t true.

After looking at these facts, Brand agreed with the county.

The union’s 2009 offer included a reduction in cost-of-living increases from 3 percent to 2 percent, saving $1.2 million. Beaman also wanted to transfer $4 million earmarked for fire station security fences to University Medical Center. It was to help the hospital’s financially strapped oncology outpatient unit, he said.

The union wanted something in return: two more personal-leave days each year, costing $1.6 million.

At the time, then-County Manager Virginia Valentine stopped just short of calling Beaman a liar. She told the Sun “oncology never came up. I’m telling you, never.”

She also said state law forbade the county from using the $4 million set aside for fencing for anything but capital expenses.

Don Burnette, chosen as the new county manager this month, was the key strategist behind these negotiations with the firefighters’ union.

Empowered by a commission that supports reining in costs — property and sales tax revenue has fallen for the past three years — Burnette said he was “very pleased with the outcome.”

CORRECTION: The story has been corrected to include sick-leave and vacation pay in the base pay figures. In 2009, the fire engineer's base was about $85,000: $44,000 for hours worked; $33,000 sick leave; $8,000 vacation pay. The other firefighter's base was about $95,000. | (January 21, 2011)

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