Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Sun Editorial:

County shows progress toward making changes at the fire department

After months of revelations about overtime and sick leave abuse in the Clark County Fire Department, there are indications that the county is getting a handle on the issue.

As Joe Schoenmann reported in Friday’s Las Vegas Sun, sick leave has dropped across the board in the department. It has notably dropped at the stations in Laughlin and at McCarran International Airport, falling 61 percent in Laughlin per pay period compared with 2010, and 59 percent at McCarran.

The county put in tighter controls and has taken action against a few firefighters for abusing what was already a generous system. As well, law enforcement agencies are investigating potential criminal violations, which surely has changed things.

During arbitration last year with the firefighters union over its contract, county officials said that some firefighters were gaming the system with their use of sick leave. County officials backed up their claims with emails that detailed what firefighters were doing, and the arbitrator made a point of the issue.

There were firefighters who scheduled sick days when they weren’t ill. Not only did that give them extra time off, but it also allowed other firefighters to schedule extra shifts to take the place of their “sick” colleagues, and that was lucrative for them. When a firefighter calls in sick, the firefighter who works in place of the ill colleague is typically paid overtime, or what’s known as callback pay. The extra pay is calculated as part of the firefighter’s retirement benefits.

The gaming of the system cost taxpayers an untold amount of money. There are firefighters who received tens of thousands of dollars a year in overtime, according to the county. If, however, the decrease in sick leave continues, the county expects to save $2.5 million.

The abuse was apparently ingrained in some parts of the department. Emails show that a battalion chief was involved in scheduling sick time for firefighters who weren’t sick.

The county changed rules to make deputy fire chiefs, not battalion chiefs, responsible for reviewing sick leave and also called for doctor’s notes if a firefighter has used more than five sick days a year. The union also included tougher rules in the contract that was approved this year, which will allow firefighters who don’t turn in doctor’s notes to face disciplinary action.

County Manager Don Burnette said he was encouraged by the results, and even Commissioner Tom Collins, a strong supporter of the firefighters, said the lower sick leave numbers were good.

“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 said the firefighters are “disciplining themselves, to some degree.”

That’s good. The various emails and facts that have come to light show that the fire department didn’t have enough discipline.

The county should be commended for moving to address this, but it shouldn’t rest with this. It should continue to discipline any wrongdoing and make sure the abuse is ended.

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