Firefighters' e-mails indicate abuse of sick leave, overtime

Some Clark County firefighters appeared to have worked with their supervising officers to improperly use sick leave, according to e-mails obtained by the Review-Journal.

And no firefighter or department manager has been fired or punished for misusing the sick leave system, county and union leaders said.

The e-mails show that some firefighters worked with supervisors to arrange sick calls, sometimes months in advance, for vacation rather than for medical problems.

The wording at times is nonchalant, as if those involved believe what they're doing is OK.

But the head of the local firefighters union said it is not all right.

The contract is clear that sick leave is to be used only when the employee or an immediate family member is ill and not as a substitute for vacation, said Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908.

"The county should have shared information on misuse of sick leave when they discovered it," Beaman said.

County officials say they suspected abuse but were hamstrung by a contractual rule requiring a firefighter to miss four shifts in a row before a supervisor could take action.

Both the county and the union approved changing the rule to let a supervisor request a doctor's note if five shifts are missed in a year.

County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani has dismissed the argument as an excuse and contended that county management could have taken some measures to fix the problem.

Written in 2009, the e-mails will be part of a report on allegations of sick leave abuse presented to county commissioners today .

The names on the messages were blacked out to comply with employee confidentiality laws.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak requested the report. Two weeks ago, he called for an audit and criminal investigation after arbitrator Norman Brand noted firefighters' possible sick leave abuse in his decision.

Sick leave and overtime helped push some firefighters' pay above $200,000 a year. County firefighters average $180,000 yearly in wages and benefits, compared with $80,000 for members of the county's largest union, the Service Employees International Union.

Brand chose the county's contract offer over the firefighters', a deal that could save taxpayers as much as $7.4 million a year. Commissioners are set to ratify the contract today.

Many of the e-mails indicate firefighters and their bosses were using sick leave and vacation days interchangeably.

One firefighter in April arranged sick days and overtime days for July.

"I will need July 17, 19 and 21 off (sick of course) and my last day of work will be the 23rd," the firefighter wrote. "I would like to work overtime on July 1, July 5. Thanks for being so nice about this and working with me. I really, really appreciate it!"

In one message, a supervisor wrote:

"There were a couple of vacation slots open on the 21st, but I couldn't put you in them because your request came less than 24 hours in advance. You've been entered as Sick on that day."

In another message, a firefighter said he would "rather take vacation than call off sick."

"You got it," the battalion chief replied.

"Thnx chief!! a Bunch!!!" the firefighter wrote.

In a strongly worded message, one battalion chief expressed concern about firefighters calling in sick at the last minute so that a co-worker can receive callback pay for filling in. The bonus pay is given to firefighters who return to work less than 12 hours after they finish their shifts, and it counts toward pensions.

"If we could at least make the appearance of holding the contract in some regard, I would be appreciative," the chief wrote. "It goes without saying that the contract allows a lot of latitude to those who manipulate the system for their own financial gain."

District Attorney David Roger said that if any crime were committed, it would be theft. He said his staff is investigating the matter.

"I can't say whether there's a prosecutable case," he said.

Contrary to earlier statements, it's not necessary for two people to conspire to break the law in this case, Roger said. If one person steals money from the county, that would be a crime, he added.

Sisolak said the e-mails are clear-cut proof of malfeasance.

"How can it not be a crime?" he asked. "It is fraud. The general public is so upset over the issue, even I am surprised."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@ or 702-455-4519.