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April 18, 2014

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Clark County firefighters profit from sick leave policy

Commissioner suspects organized ploy for extra overtime

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Clark County’s firefighters call in sick almost twice as often as rank-and-file county employees and at about four times the rate of management.

Those numbers, included in a county compensation study, have one commissioner claiming firefighters are gaming the system in an effort to accrue more overtime. Firefighters who call in sick are replaced by colleagues who are paid overtime.

“They have figured out how to play the system to their benefit and take advantage of every single opportunity in their contract to maximize their pay and minimize the benefit to the taxpayer,” Commissioner Steve Sisolak said.

The president of the firefighters union said the higher use of sick time by the union’s members was “news” to him. “The county has never brought this concern to the union,” said Ryan Beaman, president of Firefighters Local 1908.

Beaman said Fire Chief Steve Smith is responsible for management, supervision and discipline of firefighters. Smith would not comment due to ongoing contract negotiations.

Those talks are likely more contentious than in recent memory as labor has been unwilling to budge and management has little wiggle room because of declining tax revenue. Unlike the county’s other employee unions, firefighters were unable or unwilling last year to offer salary concessions that county commissioners and administrators found acceptable.

Sisolak is the only commissioner to speak openly about what he calls a “broken” payroll system. If some think the system isn’t broken, he said, then there’s either an abuse of the sick-leave policy or genuine health problems within the department.

Overtime is a heated issue for county firefighters, with the employees defending it as the result of the administration’s reluctance to hire enough of them to cover regular shifts. Firefighters work overtime — which is 1 1/2 times normal pay — on shifts that should go to an employee paid a regular hourly rate.

But Sisolak said it appears that a chunk of the department’s overtime costs are the direct result of firefighters taking too much sick leave: the more sick leave, the more other firefighters will be needed to fill in and the more overtime that will be paid.

The average firefighter in fiscal year 2009 was out sick for 9 1/2 shifts. Because firefighters are scheduled to work 10 shifts a month, that equals almost one month of sick leave per year. When combined with time off for vacation, which averages about 13 shifts per firefighter, the average firefighter is off a little more than two months a year.

Consider the case of Battalion Chief Renee Dillingham. She worked about 75 percent of her scheduled 2,912 hours in fiscal 2009. Her sick leave plus vacation totaled 28 shifts, or about three months away from work. So she worked about 2,200 hours.

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But even after being sick for 382 hours and on vacation for 292 hours, Dillingham managed to pull down an extra 1,199 hours of “callback” pay — overtime pay, plus a contribution to the employee’s retirement fund. Callback pay amounted to about $80,000, almost equal to Dillingham’s $93,144 base salary.

“Someone sick and vacationing so often had enough energy to come back and take on so many extra hours?” Sisolak said sarcastically.

Firefighters have benefitted from the public’s admiration since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 lost their lives at New York City’s World Trade Center. “But it’s not acceptable anymore,” said Sisolak, a commissioner since January 2009.

“Firefighters have become the gold medalists of gaming the system, and it’s gone too far, and it’s gone on for too long,” he said.

Sisolak said it would be very difficult to prove firefighters coordinate taking sick time so their colleagues may earn overtime. But data for individual firehouses raise that specter.

In fiscal year 2009, sick leave and vacation for firefighters throughout the department averaged 484 hours. But the total leave time of firefighters working at McCarran International Airport averaged 876 hours, or some 35 shifts. At 10 shifts per month, that’s about 3 1/2 months.

Meanwhile, the average overtime worked by airport firefighters was 859 hours — almost equal to the number of hours they took off for sick and vacation leave.

The airport firehouse is interesting on another level. The Federal Aviation Administration requires special training to work there, so it is closed to other firefighters without that training.

“Are they sitting around and figuring this stuff out together? I don’t know,” Sisolak said. “But it’s something we should be looking at.”

Other municipalities have struggled with sky-high sick leave among firefighters. “Sick-leave abuse” has become such a problem that addressing it is a part of normal contract negotiations.

In East Jefferson, La., near New Orleans, negotiators in 2009 tussled over the idea of either targeting individuals or creating a blanket policy to get after sick-leave abusers. They settled on a policy requiring firefighters who take sick leave for off-duty injuries lose their scheduled overtime pay before their regular hours are tapped. There is no penalty for firefighters injured on the job.

In Clark County, Sisolak would like to see firefighters work shorter shifts, maybe 12 hours instead of 24. He said he often gets calls from taxpayers who see firefighters driving fire trucks to the gym or to the supermarket.

“If we had them on 8-to-12-hour shifts, then they wouldn’t be sleeping on the job, or going to the gym, and we’d get more work out of them,” he said.

Other commissioners aren’t so sure. Commissioners Tom Collins and Chris Giunchigliani said if a problem exists, it is management’s responsibility to curb it.

“If they really think people are doing this, then they have to address it. And if they don’t address it, then shame on them and shame on us,” Giunchigliani said.

Sisolak disagreed.

“You can’t blame management because they do what we (commissioners) tell them to do,” he said. “If we want to do something about it, if we want to negotiate contracts that don’t allow this to happen, then that’s what we have to tell county management.”

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