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County officials crack down on firefighters use of sick leave

Clark County managers have stepped up oversight of firefighters’ sick leave use amid a public outcry, a possible criminal investigation and evidence that suggests some supervising battalion chiefs also abused the system.

Battalion chiefs are no longer handling sick leave requests for themselves, and they will have more eyes looking over their shoulders when they deal with sick calls from lower-ranking firefighters under new procedures started last week.

The fire chief and deputy chiefs will monitor sick leave in the department, and human resource officials and county managers also will review how sick days are approved and used.

"Hopefully it will reduce sick leave use," County Manager Don Burnette said Friday.

More than 230 firefighters each missed at least a month’s worth of 24-hour shifts because of sick calls in 2009, and a dozen missed more than three months of work because of sick leave.

Firefighters’ sick leave can be costly because the tight staffing often requires those who fill in for absent co-workers to be paid overtime, and usually for 24 hours.

Most firefighters who return to work less than 12 hours after finishing a shift also qualify for callback pay, in which a portion of that day’s earnings goes toward pensions.

The FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department are reviewing documents to determine whether to do a criminal investigation into the alleged abuse.

Burnette said he aims to punish those who misused the system.

Those who abused sick leave will forfeit six months, or 144 hours, of sick time, he said, noting that the labor contract allows for such a penalty.

He and other managers also are looking at demoting or firing the more flagrant abusers.

On Friday they disclosed the names of the 18 firefighters they presented in arbitration as showing suspicious sick leave patterns. The arbitrator, who chose the county’s contract offer over the union’s offer, took note of the potential abuse in his written decision.

Among those on the list was fire engineer Eddie Beaman, father of Ryan Beaman, head of the local firefighters union.

Ryan Beaman said he and his father have a business relationship when it comes to the Fire Department. He said he supports greater oversight and thinks the county should punish anyone who abused sick time.

The fire chief should talk to the people under suspicion, and if he doesn’t think their stories add up, he should discipline them, Beaman said.

Forfeiting six months of sick leave would be appropriate because the contract allows for the penalty, Beaman said, adding that he is puzzled that managers never used it before.

Beaman said he doesn’t buy the argument that the old contract kept managers from doing anything until a firefighter missed four shifts in a row. A manager now can demand a doctor’s note if someone calls in sick five times in a year.

"They always had the tool," he said. "There is nothing that has changed in the contract."

Beaman, however, contends that demoting or firing employees would be overreaching. Nothing in the contract allows it, he said, adding that such actions might be grounds for an appeal.

Burnette said he tried to get stiffer penalties for sick leave abuse put into the contract but withdrew the proposals to get through a nettlesome arbitration.

He said he wishes the contract had stronger language for meting out punishments, but thinks he still has the authority to crack down.

"I don’t believe it forecloses our ability to pursue disciplinary action," Burnette said.

Sick leave and overtime have 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 county workers in the Service Employees International Union, the county’s largest union.

Battalion chiefs fared even better, earning an average of $280,000 in wages and benefits in 2009.

E-mails sent by firefighters and battalion chiefs that year show a coordinated effort to set up sick leave for vacation, in part so colleagues could get overtime pay for substituting.

Using sick leave for anything other than medical problems is a violation of the labor contract, union and county officials say.

In one e-mail, Battalion Chief Renee Dillingham described making a "sick roster" for her fellow battalion chiefs to take home rather than post.

The roster contains calendars in which the chiefs penciled themselves in for sick time weeks in advance.

Grumblings about firefighters possibly scamming the sick leave system exploded into a public uproar after County Commissioner Steve Sisolak called on local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate.

Sisolak said he was glad that battalion chiefs no longer will be left unchecked. Those who aided underlings in gaming the system are no different than a guard looking the other way when a prisoner escapes, he said.

"The firefighters are wrong," he said. "But the battalion chiefs, if they were aware of this, are culpable too."

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

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