Anne Arundel police seek to enforce rules on officers' sick leave

Abuses were revealed in audit completed this month

September 27, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Responding to an audit that showed a handful of police officers had abused sick leave shortly before retiring, Anne Arundel County police officials said yesterday that they were trying to determine how to enforce leave policies more consistently.

"We have the policies in place," said Deputy Police Chief David G. Shipley. "We just have to make sure they're followed. Training could be a part of that."

Shipley said the department also might consider adding checks and balances so that supervisors can spot potential abuses more easily.

The county's auditor, Teresa Sutherland, surveyed the sick leave records of 46 officers who retired between July 1998 and June. The audit, completed this month, showed that officers were using accumulated sick leave just before retiring from the force.

One officer didn't work a day for three months from October to December, using nine days of annual leave during that time and the rest sick leave - only six days of which were supported by a medical certificate as required in some cases, the audit shows.

County laws define "disability leave abuse" as a failure to provide supervisors with written documentation from a health care provider for absences requiring more than three days of sick leave, or as a consistent pattern of using sick leave, often before or after a regularly scheduled day off.

Most county employees are compensated for only a fraction of their unused sick days. County officials suspect the problem of using sick leave without a medical reason is widespread among retiring employees.

But, Sutherland said, "The only way to know is to go out and do an audit."

She said she plans to examine records of other county employees to determine if others are abusing sick leave - though she said she hasn't determined the scope of the next audit.

"I think the problem is solvable," said Sutherland.

Employees who don't provide medical notes for their sick day absences should not be paid for those days - a policy that supervisors are supposed to enforce, she said. If existing rules were enforced, Sutherland said, "It wouldn't be long before people starting bringing in notes."

County fire officials developed a computer program that allows supervisors to more easily spot potential sick leave abuse - showing the types of leave employees use in different colors on a calendar. They also have clarified the department's leave policies and conduct internal audits to ensure firefighters aren't abusing time off, said Division Chief John M. Scholz.

A pattern of abuse by retiring firefighters was discovered last year by the county's Committee on Fraud, Waste and Abuse, which was asked to investigate an anonymous complaint that a firefighter was using all his sick leave before he retired, though he wasn't sick.

The findings prompted an audit of police, in which Sutherland found about a half-dozen examples of sick leave abuse, including a case in which one officer worked 5 1/2 hours during a full month - using about two weeks of annual leave and 1 1/2 weeks of sick leave.

Another officer took 11 days of sick day in a month - five of the days consecutively and six days just before or after regular days off, according to the audit.

Officials say the problem might be attributed in part to poor documentation, suggesting that the officers might actually have been sick. For example, one officer was placed on disability leave in August and remained on disability leave for five months. However, a medical certificate was provided for only about six weeks.

The report does not address the legitimacy of the absences. "I have no way of knowing whether they were sick or not," Sutherland said. "I just know the absences weren't properly documented."

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