Las Vegas Sun

October 24, 2014

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Las Vegas firefighters burn up more sick time than other city employees

OUT SICK, A LOT

In 2009, Las Vegas firefighters were scheduled to work 3,024 hours (24-hour shifts), but on average they used 203 hours for sick leave. In contrast, nonfire city employees were to work 2,160 hours, but used 85 hours for sick leave. This does not include time off for vacations.
Oscar Goodman

Oscar Goodman

Gary Reese

Gary Reese

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Las Vegas firefighters use about 60 percent more sick leave than other city employees, according to figures obtained by the Sun.

Those numbers parallel a recent Clark County compensation study showing county firefighters call in sick almost twice as often as rank-and-file employees and about four times the rate of management.

Elected officials and the public have reacted strongly to the Sun’s findings published last week. Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said the figures show county firefighters are gaming the payroll system because those calling in sick are replaced by colleagues who are paid overtime.

The city has a similar pay structure, although a city spokeswoman said the Fire Department employs six “rovers” who fill in for sick firefighters at the regular hourly rate, not overtime. Any additional openings, however, are filled by firefighters who are paid overtime.

“If I knew something similar (to the county) was happening at the city, I most certainly would do something about it,” Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said during an interview Friday on KNPR 88.9-FM’s “State of Nevada” program. After learning later in the day that the Sun had, in fact, found something similar at the city, Goodman said he would “look into it.”

Las Vegas Councilman Gary Reese, a potential candidate for mayor in 2011, said he has a “strong opinion” about what’s going on in the Fire Department, but ongoing contract negotiations with their union prohibit him from commenting. “I respect the negotiation process,” he added.

The figures showed the following:

City firefighters were scheduled to work 3,024 hours in 2009. (Firefighters work 10 shifts of 24 hours each month. In 2009, they had one extra pay period.) They averaged 203 hours of sick leave during the year — equal to a little less than one month of work time. When sick leave was combined with vacation time, city firefighters averaged 534 hours off — equal to a little more than two months, or 18 percent of their work time.

Meanwhile, all other city employees, who are scheduled to work 2,160 hours a year, averaged about 85 hours of sick leave, or a bit more than two weeks off. Combined sick leave and vacation time for rank-and-file city workers totaled 219 hours — a little more than a month, or 10 percent of their work time.

After reviewing the numbers, Dean Fletcher, president of the city firefighters union, found fault with the comparison of hours instead of shifts. Because firefighters work 24-hour shifts, he said, they are naturally going to accumulate more hours off when they call in sick for a day than rank-and-file city employees who work eight-hour days.

When shifts are compared, firefighters’ time off averages 8.5 shifts a year versus 10.5 for other city employees, he said. “That’s the only fair way to make a comparison.”

Still, as a share of their total hours, firefighters’ sick leave is considerably higher, on average.

The discussion of overtime and other labor costs comes as the city and county face unprecedented budget deficits.

Last week, Goodman asked city staff to examine the legality of firing all city employees and then rehiring them at lower pay. Otherwise, the city is threatening to lay off 146 employees to save $70 million.

At the county, the outlook isn’t much better. Staff have projected a budget deficit of up to $200 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Sisolak plans to request an audit or investigation of the Clark County Fire Department’s payroll system, but said he will wait until contract negotiations are complete.

“It wouldn’t be fair to both sides to bring up an audit or investigation while they are trying to work out a contract,” he said.

But Sisolak said his interest in the matter has been heightened by the hundreds of phone calls he has received over the past week. Even during a funeral he attended, people approached him to say how upset they were about firefighters’ time off and compensation.

“People are simply fed up,” he said. “At a time like this, when so many are out of work, some of the pay schedules we have in place don’t sit well with the public.”

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