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Commissioner convinced some firefighters ‘gaming the system’

A Clark County commissioner has called for a criminal investigation into allegations of firefighters abusing sick leave.

Bolstered by critical comments from an arbitrator, Commissioner Steve Sisolak is sending letters to the FBI, the Metropolitan Police Department, the district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office asking that they look into whether some firefighters conspired to use sick leave to pad each other’s paychecks and pensions.

The arbitrator chose the county’s final contract offer Wednesday over the one the firefighters union proposed, ending a months-long labor dispute and saving taxpayers an estimated $7.4 million if the contract’s new terms last for a full year.

The 741 firefighters covered in the contract will get a 2 percent pay cut, no wage increases, a reduction in long-term disability benefits and a tougher sick leave policy.

The contract runs from July 2010 to July of this year. Contract talks for the next fiscal year are expected to start soon. None of the cuts in compensation will be retroactive.

The written decision cast a spotlight on allegations of sick-leave abuse in the Fire Department as the arbitrator backed stricter rules for calling in sick.

Arbitrator Norman Brand referred to records showing that sick leave with overtime pushed some firefighters’ annual earnings to more than $200,000 in 2009.

County firefighters averaged $180,000 in wages and benefits in 2009.

Sisolak, a vocal critic of firefighters’ compensation, said he has been convinced for some time that certain firefighters are “gaming the system,” but he wanted to wait until arbitration ended before taking action.

“I think there was an abuse of the system,” Sisolak said. “It’s deplorable and despicable. I want it audited and investigated.”

The firefighters union should support an investigation because presumably only a small number of employees are scamming the system, Sisolak said. Nabbing the handful of wrongdoers will prevent the entire Fire Department from being tarnished, he added.

Ryan Beaman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908, didn’t respond to phone messages or e-mails on the subject Thursday. And a statement he issued Thursday on the arbitrator’s decision made no comment on the sick leave allegations.

In the statement, Beaman said the union’s battle with the county had less to do with money than protecting longtime contractual language that the county wanted to change. Some of the proposed contract changes would have made senior employees, namely fire inspectors, more susceptible to layoffs.

For years, there have been allegations of county firefighters colluding on sick leave to boost overtime and other bonus pay.

The allegations describe situations in which one firefighter calls in sick so a colleague can fill in and get overtime pay. A firefighter also might call in sick at the last minute, so a colleague can receive callback pay for substituting.

A firefighter receives callback pay for returning to work sooner than 12 hours after finishing a shift. Callback pay gets counted toward retirement benefits.

Brand gave the allegations more weight when he sided with the county’s concerns about potential abuse.

In his decision, Brand noted that a fire battalion chief wrote in e-mails that he observed certain firefighters appearing to time sick calls so a co-worker could get callback pay.

Sisolak said he wants to see those e-mails and any other evidence of malfeasance.

Commissioner Tom Collins said if there has been any abuse, it should be blamed on lax disciplinary measures in the contract and managers failing to crack down.

“To not have more strength in the disciplinary side has led to the alleged abuse,” Collins said.

Collins supported the county’s tougher guidelines for sick leave that are part of the arbitrator’s decision.

The fire chief will be able to request a doctor’s note proving an illness if a firefighter misses five shifts in a year. Previously, a firefighter had to miss four work days in a row before the chief could ask for a doctor’s note.

Brand wrote that the “chief abuser,” whom he didn’t name, took 48 days of paid sick leave in 2009 and avoided being absent four days in a row.

Despite all those sick days, he managed to work 92 overtime shifts and earned a total of $232,000 that year, Brand said.

Sisolak said he wants investigators to dig deep and find how widespread the abuse is.

He disagrees with pinning the blame on managers, arguing that everyone is responsible for their actions.

“These are adults,” Sisolak said. “They know what’s right and wrong.”

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

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