Hayden seeks end of leaves Accident leave abuses targeted by county chief

March 21, 1993|By Glenn Small and Larry Carson | Glenn Small and Larry Carson,Staff Writers

Citing fraud and abuse, the Hayden administration wants t do away with most paid accident leave for its employees and substitute worker's compensation instead.

But angry police officers and firefighters are incensed by the change and have found a champion in a policeman turned county councilman.

Union officials say County Executive Roger B. Hayden is taking his tight-money, business approach toward government too far, while Mr. Hayden says he only wants to root out abusers of the system who he says are getting hundreds of hours of non-taxed sick pay for questionable injuries.

"We looked at the number of abuses, and it's time to tighten it up," Mr. Hayden said.

The change in policy would save $700,000 to $800,000 a year, according to one county estimate.

"It seems that all they're looking at is the bottom line," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a former county policeman who is particularly upset by the change. "I realize the bottom line is important, but it's not everything."

Mr. Gardina, along with police and fire union representatives, said that asking police and firefighters to risk their lives and not be assured of accident coverage is wrong and hurts morale.

Merreen E. Kelly, the county administrative officer, told union officials at a meeting this week that he intends to do away with paid accident leave, except in cases of "catastrophic" injury. Most injured employees would be covered by worker's compensation, instead.

"With all of these fakers, we've got a constant drain [of money]," Mr. Kelly said Friday. He and Mr. Hayden cited a list of alleged abuses, including one worker who collected more than 1,800 hours of accident pay after claiming he injured his arm while pumping fuel. Another collected accident pay after claiming a back injury from pushing a box down the hall with his foot.

Administration officials insisted they intend no change that will hurt workers with legitimate injuries.

County union officials said they want abuses stopped, too, but argue that there are ways to eliminate them without chopping accident leave for the truly injured.

"I think they should manage these abuses," said Lt. Timothy Caslin, head of the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The workers, especially firefighters and police officers, said they are angry because they have already been through two years of furloughs, layoffs and other budget cuts -- including no pay raises. Now, they said, they'll have to worry about whether they'll get paid while recuperating from job-related injuries.

Mr. Kelly said those fears are unfounded and based on emotional statements from labor leaders. He said the county will be better able to care for police officers and firefighters injured on the job if the county isn't also paying for accidents claimed by workers who are abusing the system.

Mr. Hayden said fire and police chiefs will meet tomorrow with union leaders to agree on how the policy will be administered.

Technically, the accident leave change is merely an effort to enforce an existing law, which says an injured employee is eligible for one year of paid accident leave -- if the county administrative officer approves it.

But personnel chief Richard Holloway said that, over the years, accident leave became a routine, automatic benefit that was taken out of the administrative officer's hands.

Now, Mr. Kelly will only approve accident leave in extreme cases, such as a police officer who is shot or a firefighter who falls through a burning roof, said Mr. Holloway.

Injured workers would have to apply to the state's worker's compensation fund, which pays two-thirds of a worker's salary, to a maximum of $494 per week. For most workers, that would equal their take-home pay because worker's compensation payments are tax-free.

Mr. Gardina, who was a police officer for seven years, said he will fight the change, even if it means passing a new law.

Kevin O'Connor of the firefighters' union said Thursday that union attorneys are studying the change in policy, and if "there's a legal battle there, we're going to foster one."

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