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Audit reveals no sick leave abuse among North Las Vegas firefighters

North Las Vegas firefighters don’t abuse sick leave or overtime, according to an audit called for by the City Council in the wake of a pay scandal in the county’s fire department.

The city’s firefighters take an average of 4.6 sick days a year, according to an audit report released Thursday. That’s well below the 8.5 days that firefighters average nationally, union officials said.

"There is no sick leave abuse or overtime abuse within the North Las Vegas Fire Department," Mayor Shari Buck said in a statement.

City leaders now can move toward adopting the union’s $4 million in concessions, which the council had delayed until the audit could be done. The city faces a $35 million shortfall in the next budget year. Proposed concessions, which include forgoing pay raises for a year, would save 33 firefighters’ jobs.

Union leaders said the audit’s findings didn’t surprise them.

"This isn’t anything new for us," said Jeff Hurley, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1607. "We have a very strict and comprehensive sick leave policy."

The report is in stark contrast to the much publicized sick leave scandal in the Clark County Fire Department, where the FBI and Metropolitan Police Department are investigating for possible criminal abuse.

More than 230 county firefighters missed 10 shifts — a month of work — in 2009 because of sick days taken, and a dozen were absent more than 30 shifts. One concern is that the missed shifts pumped up overtime costs.

The county’s brouhaha prompted Councilwoman Anita Wood to call for an audit of North Las Vegas firefighters’ sick leave and overtime before considering concessions offered by the union.

She has argued that before the council makes any agreements with the union, it must show residents that firefighters haven’t acted improperly.

Wood couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Tougher rules and no caps on sick leave accrual appear to play a part in controlling sick leave, according to the audit report.

One deterrent could be a rule that limits overtime for firefighters who call in sick, the report said.

City firefighters work 48 hours and then get four days off as a normal rotation. If they call in sick for either of their two regular workdays, they can’t work an overtime shift during their next four days off.

The county has no such restriction.

North Las Vegas firefighters also appear to have an incentive: There is no cap on the amount of sick days they accumulate and eventually cash in.

They accrue 12 days annually, or 288 hours, the same rate as county firefighters, whose cumulative total is capped at about 2,300 hours.

Hurley acknowledged that the lack of ceiling could encourage firefighters not to burn sick days.

"We definitely have a bigger issue of firefighters coming to work sick" and possibly spreading germs, Hurley said.

The audit also looked at the department’s overtime. It noted that North Las Vegas has tight regulations on callbacks and that isn’t a problem as it is in the county. But it found that tight staffing levels have led to more than $3 million a year in overtime, an average of $17,103 per employee. That’s more than double what the city set aside for overtime in its current budget.

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said the North Las Vegas report underscores problems plaguing the county’s fire department.

Sisolak said he likes the idea of making firefighters temporarily ineligible for overtime if they call in sick.

But he couldn’t support giving them unlimited accrual of sick time because that could result in gargantuan payouts for retiring employees.

Hurley said that even without a cap, the firefighters seldom collect more than 2,000 hours, because they typically sell back a portion of their unused leave each year. He said their work ethic, as much as the rules, reins in sick-leave use.

"I believe it’s a cultural thing from the top down," Hurley said.

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

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