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December 22, 2014

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County considers seeking reimbursement over firefighter sick leave abuse

Sick leave abuse

KSNV coverage of County Commission's continuing investigation into alleged fire department sick leave abuse, Feb. 15, 2011.

Clark County is continuing to investigate abuse of sick leave in the fire department and is looking into the possibility of seeking reimbursement from the firefighters’ retirement program.

Assistant County Manager Ed Finger gave an update to county commissioners Tuesday on the use of sick leave in the fire department. In their last meeting, Finger presented evidence to commissioners that some firefighters have abused the sick-leave policy.

Finger said the county has implemented new administrative procedures for sick leave use, which he said will prevent abuse.

He also said the county is reviewing the possibility of adjusting firefighters’ pension payments with the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System if an investigation shows that a firefighters abused the system.

However, while the county has employee e-mails that suggest some firefighters preplanned sick leave and coordinated their use of leave with other people, proving a particular person was or wasn’t sick on any given day is difficult to do, Finger said.

“The vast majority of e-mails, in my opinion, were circumstantial, and there’s probably very little opportunity to say those e-mails in some way would directly result in our adjusting wages or pensions wages,” Finger said.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who has been the most critical of firefighters on the commission, told Finger the county might not be able to prove it, but law enforcement agencies can.

Sisolak previously said he has asked Metro Police, the FBI and the district attorney’s office to investigate the use of sick leave and callback in the department.

Finger said there is some precedence for getting reimbursements from PERS. A few years ago, the county investigated the use of callback, when a firefighter is called in to work on short notice, and discovered the county had paid into some firefighters’ retirement funds for time that wasn’t eligible.

The county ended up getting more than $800,000 back from PERS, Finger said.

In a theoretical example, Sisolak said a firefighter could get as much as $2.4 million in extra pay if he or she lived several years after retiring.

Finger said the county’s efforts to prove abuse of the system were intended to show an arbitrator that the firefighters’ contract needed to be changed to give county administrators more tools to combat the abuse.

That was accomplished when the arbitrator chose the county’s proposed contract, which allows management to request a doctor’s note when a firefighter uses more than five sick days a year. The old contract required a firefighter to call in sick four consecutive shifts before a note could be required.

“We’re focused on the future, we’re focused on making sure it doesn’t happen again,” Finger said.

Commissioner Larry Brown said that while he supports investigating abuse, he doesn’t want the county to get lost looking backward. He said the county needs to work to create a culture of transparency and confidence in all of the government, including the fire department.

Sisolak directed county staff to work with law enforcement agencies investigating abuse and said he hoped the firefighters’ union would do the same.

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  1. If anyone abused sick time there is only one solution. TERMINATION of their employment.

  2. Reimbursement is not good enough. I want reimbursement AND criminal charges AND pension adjustments AND terminations. Why are they being soft on millions being stolen. This is ridiculous that they are looking for an easy way out. Someone better be prosecuted. When you do these pansies will squeal and then we will know the extent of the damage and theft.

  3. Larry Brown wants to look forward. Larry you lost my vote.

  4. not only must there be terminations...
    THERE MUST BE CRIMINAL CHARGES!!!

  5. NEVER EVER EVER VOTE FOR LARRY BROWN AGAIN!!!

  6. Wonder about sick time in Metro

  7. Chunky says:

    "Abuse" may not be the same as "breaking the law" or "violating department policy".

    If the employees have simply manipulated a flawed system it's wrong and that loop-hole needs to be closed.

    If they violated department policy or broke the law they should be dealt with accordingly.

    Regardless of the semantics if they've taken tax-payer dollars inappropriately they should be exposed to us taxpayers "We The People" so we know who our friends and neighbors are.

    It seems like the burden of proof is going to be on the county against each individual firefighter; probably not an easy task to create the proof needed to go after them.

    It still looks and smells bad based on the information presented.

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  8. The majority of Las Vegans, commenting via the local social networks, brick and mortars included, relate how they once, as far back as their youth, held firemen in the highest regard. Brave men in blue or heavy canvas jackets who risked their lives charging into flames and or climbing the highest telephone pole to save the day for the entrapped or someone's pet from the heights, respectively.

    The negative light they now cower under and kept in the forefront by justice seeking leaders like Mr. Sisolak, depict a fall from grace.

    The public trust was broken as greed took advantage of a trusting citizenry.

    In Bell California, the public servants who surreptitious gave themselves exorbitant salaries reportedly found amusing their scam and comically characterized themselves as pigs.

    Our firefighters blew their image for years to come. Unfortunately the IRS should be around too.
    The new generation of youth might be impressed and in awe with the beautiful red trucks, but the elder holding their hands will nary say a word.

  9. FIRE the employees who abused the sick leave. Get rid of them. There's no shortage of honest firefighters that can be hired to replace them. Simple as that.

  10. What is funny is when the Firefighters all showed up @ the meetings showing their 'displeasure' for the county wanting them to take a pay cut! LOL! hmmmmmmmmmmmm

  11. Claw it back Dude...then declare exigency and let a bunch go...it happens.

  12. We all know that this is just a big show so the elected honchos can thump their respective chests for sound bites for their next election.
    Ain't nothin' gonna' happen...no pay backs...no prosecutions..nothing!
    But these officals can claim, during the next election cycle, that they really, really tried to protect the taxpayers and that they deserve to be re-elected because they are such great watchdogs of the public purse.

  13. All things considered, this should result in most people dismissing a vote for either Brown or Chris G. for mayor. (Brown for his comment in the story, Chris G. for her love of employee unions.)

  14. Unions.........the enemy of American Free Enterprise.

  15. Today driving to work I saw an Audi A6 with firefighter plates. Made me want puke. I'm all for civil servants making good pay, but this is nuts! Highly educated civil servants are makes a fraction of what these under-educated FF are stealing from us.

  16. Keep in mind, as Ed Finger said today, almost all of the "evidence" they have is circumstantial. If it is found that someone misused their sick time usage in a coordinated effort to maximize OT of another and vice versa, than they should be disciplined. Plain and simple. Shame on them for allowing their greedy little minds to convince them in some perverted way that their behavior was justifiable.

    Whatever the outcome, the individuals that manipulated the system have violated the trust of the public and of the other decent hard-working employees who have to share the public blame for their selfish actions.

    However, I've read the emails. Not much of a smoking gun here. Last week the media said there was 231 "abusers". The email "evidence" shows there were only a small handful of possible abusers. Comparably, my mom has 7 siblings and one is a total jackhole. That's one in eight odds. There are approx. 650 CCFD firefighters and a handful that made these bad choices. That's going to happen in every group whether it's public, private, union or non-union. It's simply human behavior. There's always going to be at least one Bernie Madoff in the bunch.

    But how about calling this situation what it is... the isolated behavior of a few bad apples. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to justify their bad behavior at all. If it is proven that they received compensation they shouldn't have, I hope the money is recovered and they are disciplined. But painting everyone with the same broad brush is a distortion of the facts. It's not fair to the other firefighters, and its not fair to the public who is looking to accurately assess the situation.

  17. DS, how do you know that that A6 wasn't driven by one of the Chiefs with 30 years experience and a Master's Degree of their own? You're letting your your emotions disable your ability to logically reason.

  18. Paul, before Unions the American Free Enterprise you speak of had many examples of mistreating and exploiting its employees. When unions exist in a market non union employers have to tailor their pay and benefits so that they can compete for workers. That raises the bar for all. Have you ever used maternity leave, a lunch break or a weekend? If so, you can thank the labor unions. These are just a few examples, but I'm sure you could come up with others. Unions have done a lot to raise the working conditions all workers.

  19. Buddy, good to see you posting.

    I think you have to admit that circumstantial or not, there is good reason for people to be concerned. Is it all that unreasonable to have a full audit and find out just what the extent of this abuse is?

    I understand that union negotiators are going to get the best deal they can, but there has to be oversight. Those who abuse that deal have to answer for it. And those who make it possible for such abuse, or condone it, should also be held accountable. That includes elected officials who don't act in the best interest of the citizens who elected them to start out with.

  20. Hi boftx, thanks.

    There appears to be good reason to suspect the behavior of an isolated few. And I believe a full audit is completely reasonable, but that's not been the story for the last few weeks. It's been Sisolak and the other media barkers talking about "wide-spread abuse" and "231 abusers", etc. Over half of my crew would fall into the "231 abusers" group. Why? They all had babies. It's just ridiculous to me to compare apples to bananas and then call people abusers. Comparing FF sick time usage to that of an accountant, custodian or judge is worthless. Comparing FFs at CCFD to FFs in Dallas or Seattle or Denver would actually mean something. And maybe the CCFD sick usage compared to Seattle would be high, but than you'd have to compare incident volume, and FF to incident ratio or FF per capita ratios. Do they have 3 times the FFs to do the same workload? There are a lot a questions that would have to be asked if the data was going to really mean anything of value.

    I understand that the media is going to sensationalize a story to drive interest and readership, but it gets old. I don't care if people think I'm a hero or not. I never use that term, but I am willing to risk my life to saves yours. If you want to label me a hero or stupid or whatever, I don't care. It's my sense of duty that drives me, not some subjective label. That's not why I and so many of the hard-working men and women I work with do what we do. It has nothing to do with vanity or recognition. We like the excitement and challenges that our day holds and the opportunity to make a difference in our community.

    As far as your second paragraph... I couldn't agree more. Just don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

  21. Buddy, I'll be the first to say that taking time off to be with a new baby is perfectly reasonable, but I don't think that is what most of the attention is all about. Scheduling a sick day and then scheduling an OT day ahead of time seems to be a bit different than that.

    I'll disagree that comparing a FF's time off with that of an accountant or whatever is not the same. If a FF takes 3 shifts off that is over 5 days. If I take 3 shifts off that is only 3 days (and by the way I am on call 24/7, straight salary.) We all get sick for one reason or another and at some point have to account for it to our employer. In the case of people like me, we have to do it if we want to keep our jobs. In the case of Clark County FF it seems like some of them account for it to schedule OT for some friends.

    We simply don't know just how much is due to being home with babies and how much is taking advantage of a contract clause.

    As for why you do what you do, I can understand, hell, I feel a lot of what you do. I've helped man a fire break when I was 10 years old with my dad in Big Bear (not that something like that would be allowed today) and have fought shipboard fires when I was in the Navy. Yes, there is a thrill to that. At the same time I would like to think that any person would do whatever they could to help someone else in physical danger. Both the love of danger and instinct to help is part of being human.

    Right now many people are facing hard times for one reason or another (and I have little sympathy for those who are victims of their own stupidity) and it is reasonable for them to not want to see their tax money go to fraud and waste.

  22. Buddy,

    I grant that you raise some interesting premises about the ability to perform being a factor that I hadn't considered. I can see where at some point those would need to be taken into account. That said, based on my own experience those are not factors that would stop me from working to begin with. (I've been known to show up at work 5 days after a triple bypass for a couple of hours just to put the fear of me into a few people.) But again, this whole situation isn't about those who take days off for legitimate purposes.

    As for phobias and such, I must confess that I have never seen a situation where people refused to act when it was absolutely required. I'll chalk that up to just being lucky. It's inconceivable to me not to do what is needed. (Ok, giving mouth to mouth to a few people I know would be a challenge.)

    Your last paragraph is the most interesting. Regardless of what has caused our hard times, we in are in this together. I am probably just as upset, if not more so than you are (for the sake of my children) that the image of firefighters has been tarnished to such an extent as it has been by some who seem to care only about themselves. There can be no doubt that those who have engaged in this have made things much worse for those who have not. And THAT is the true shame attached to this.

    What really makes me sick is that those who have done this would still tell my 10 and 12yr old daughters that they deserve respect because they are firefighters.

  23. termination, restitution, conviction...

    game, set, match

  24. Calling in sick when one is not really sick or not that sick to receive earned sick pay is one thing. But when you are talking about a coordinated effort, actually taking sick leave with full knowledge and with the intent that the department has to pay overtime, that's another. If that can be proven then I fully agree with most of the others who have commented that termination and prosecution are in order, to include restitution and fines.

  25. I don't think OT should be considered when calculating PERS benefits (and that goes for *all* public employees.) It should be aligned with the base pay rate and nothing else. That alone would help remove some of the incentive to game the system.

    Beyond that, just put them on a straight salary with no OT, end of problem. There is no reason why FF can not be classified as an exempt profession, especially since they require a specialized college education and degree.

  26. Sisolak is the only one with the guts to go after these thieves, and for that we Thank You! As soon as they drain any money left in Nevada they will simply pick up and move to a new state to start draining them of as much money as they can steal. They need to be charged with a crime and held responsible for full restitution.

  27. Buddy,

    I was apparently using the wrong term when I said OT should not be in PERS. If callback pay is in addition to base salary then I probably meant that as well as OT.

    I think retirement benefits should be based solely upon the regular salary without any other pay being added in.

    As for pure straight salary, no matter how hours are worked, I am open to adjusting what the salary should be. I won't go into the 56hr week, been there, done that for too long. But I will also admit that as a programmer and manager I'm expected to do more. All too often I have to put in 40hrs in just 2 days.

    I actually do think that if a fair, straight salary could agreed to that maybe there would be enough money for a few extra bodies to be hired to help avoid the times when more than 56hrs in a week would be needed. Also, I sure that excessive use of sick time would drop, also reducing the number of times someone would be called back (if I'm using the term correctly.)

  28. Buddy,

    "Fair compensation" or "well compensated" are relative terms. I would like more than I get right now, and I've earned considerably more in the past, but given the location and the times I would call it fair. After all, I have a job and that is more than a lot of people can say right now.

    Safety is a legitimate concern, as is the reduction in service. But I feel compelled to point out that though you are on duty for 56 hours a week, that does not mean you are actually engaged in "work" that whole time, and having 10 days off out of 15, including 6 days off in a row is nice. We could go round and round explaining this to everyone else but you know what I mean. I am willing to take into account that being on duty entails separation from family for 24hrs at a time if you are willing to accept my point that some of the 56hrs of on duty time is engaged in sleep and other facets of everyday life.

    I think the county has been overly generous in the past to the point that they did not serve the constituents best interest. There is plenty of blame to go around for this mess.

  29. Buddy,

    If it would not be a problem, can you explain exactly what the difference is between "callback" and OT?

    My impression was that callback is when you are called in to cover a shift when you would otherwise be off. And I would have thought that OT would be paid for any time exceeding 56hrs in a week. Given how you have 6 days off in a row as part of a 15day cycle the 56hrs/week is an average over that period and this can lead to misunderstanding about exactly how this works. In theory you could have 4 24hr shifts in one week, which clearly exceeds 56 hours, yet you would not be paid OT for the excess hours for normally scheduled shifts.

  30. boftx, it's confusing to me too. There are 3 shifts (a,b,c). We work 24 hour shifts. 24hr shifts spread the work load evenly, everyone has similar responsibilities/duties during their shifts vs. day/night/swing formula. In a 15 day period a given shift works 1/3 or 5 24hr periods. One week I might work 4 24hr shifts and another week I might only work 1 shift. It averages to 56hrs/week. OT/Callback are when you are called to work in addition to your 5 out of 15 shifts. OT isn't paid for time over a certain number of hrs/week. As long as we're not working more than 1/3 of the time, we don't get OT, even if you happened to work 96hrs that week. Callbacks are on short notice and are calculated into PERS. OT is not. Callbacks have multiple conditions that have to be met in order to be a Callback.

  31. Ok, that makes sense except for the callback criteria. My next question would be when does the 15 day cycle begin? To put it another way, I know that the normal schedule appears to be 1 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off, 1 on, 6 off. That can clearly be seen on the calendars. At what point in the schedule does the actual 15 day cycle begin? Does it begin at the start of the sequence as I presented it, or somewhere in the middle of that?

    What you said above says to me that if you work more than 5 shifts in a 15 day period you get OT for the extra, whether or not it is classed as callback. So there are two issues that are going to annoy tax payers like me. One, the obvious abuse of sick time to increase the number of shifts worked in the cycle. Two, trying to arrange for as many as possible of those shifts or extra hours to be on a callback basis to increase the pension contribution.

  32. Buddy,

    I guess the cycle start doesn't really matter based on what you say. But I am still confused at to what constitutes "callback."

    Assuming that any time worked that exceeds 5 shifts in a cycle is OT, then wouldn't callback always result in OT if you work your regularly scheduled shifts as well? Are you allowed the option of taking a shift off if you work a callback shift?

    And to backtrack, that is where the issue of when the cycle starts comes into play. If the cycle starts with you first shift in the 15 day period, then any callback would be OT if you work all 5 normal shifts. But if the cycle begins at the start of your 6 day off stretch, then you could take other shifts off in that cycle and not get OT.

    I know it sounds confusing, and it probably is, but it really does have an impact on what we, the taxpayers, are upset over when abuse is involved.

    As for why FF might take or need more sick days that others, I can understand that you face hazards beyond what I would in an office environment (if I actually had to go to an office, I telecommute.) As for high blood pressure, etc. any job with responsibility will cause that. I've had 3 major heart attacks in the last 6 years. The over/under at work is 7 on how many I can survive.

  33. boftx, As far as the line staff is concerned, our cycle starts on day 1. Everyone shares the same calendar, not individual calendars based on when they work and when the don't. I've had responsibility at my jobs for the last 20 years. This career is different.

    joe, keep in mind that CCFD has some of the busiest units in the entire nation. We also have one of the lowest FFs/capita ratio in the nation, and capita doesn't take account for the 40 million annual visitors. The County doesn't give a crap if I sleep or not. Normally, weekends are busier than weekdays but sometime weekdays are just as busy. On any given weekend I could run between 20-30 calls in a 24 hour period, morning time (0800-1200) is normally the slowest (fewer incidents) which just condenses the calls into the rest of the shift. If you figure door-to-door time is probably 30-45 minutes on average, how much time do you really think I'm sleeping? Next time I'm coming back from my 20th call and it 3am and I just counting the minutes till I can leave and go home to spend the next 6 hours of my off duty day trying to recover from what just happened I'll think of you and laugh. I will say this, your assessment about liability and danger are correct. The County is taking a HUGE chance with liability and they are running us into the ground. But just so you're clear, there is NO minimum sleep required. They don't shut down a unit because I'm on call #23 and haven't sleep more than an hour in 4 broken 15 minute segments. They don't monitor our sleep or lack of in any way other than a policy of no bed usage before 1900. It's so tiring that I've almost fallen asleep on my way home numerous times. I go home and spend a big portion of my day off sleeping. Think for a minute if working like this would increase sick time. Then imagine if working 72hrs like this would increase sick time usage. I would bet that if you looked at a sick usage chart from 10 years ago when call volume was lower and OT was near nonexistent it would be significantly less.