Abuse of sick leave alleged

Firefighters' actions boost overtime costs, chief says

`Significant staffing problems'

Union head says he knows of no exploitation

Anne Arundel

October 03, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Sick leave abuse by Anne Arundel County firefighters has contributed to the department's rising overtime costs, Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds told a panel studying his department yesterday.

After some firefighters are denied a day off because no one can fill their shifts, "they consciously take a day of [sick] leave to get the day off," Simonds said.

The practice results in "significant staffing problems," which generally requires the payment of overtime, he said, and because of the county's sick leave policy, it's hard for fire officials to monitor the suspected abuse.

Keith W. Wright, president of the county firefighters union, told the panel that he was unaware of any sick leave abuse.

Yesterday marked the third meeting of the eight-member group, which County Executive Janet S. Owens assembled after the department overspent its overtime budget by nearly $1 million last fiscal year and spent millions more in overtime than neighboring counties did.

Simonds also paid a crew of firefighters overtime to renovate a county warehouse after he was denied capital funding through the usual channels.

Some firefighters double their pay with overtime, and during the fiscal year that ended June 30, eight of the 10 highest-paid county government employees were firefighters.

Simonds' contention about sick-leave abuse followed three hours of testimony by Wright. The chief's comments were cut short by the end of the meeting, but panel members said they are interested in revisiting the issue and developing a way to monitor potential abuse.

Most county employees are required to bring a doctor's excuse if they miss more than three consecutive days of work.

But firefighters, because they work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off, can be away from work for 11 calendar days before missing a fourth work day. Firefighters can take about eight shifts a year as sick time.

Wright said he is not aware that more than a couple of firefighters have been disciplined over their use of sick time.

Wright played down the effect of vacation days and sick leave on the rising overtime costs, pushing the panel instead to support hiring more firefighters.

"Here again is another time that I'm putting the county on notice," he said. "It continues to fall on deaf ears."

Because of the lack of staffing in Anne Arundel, Wright said, firefighters often arrive at a fire and must wait for backup before they can begin putting out the blaze.

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule requires that two firefighters be outside a building before two firefighters can go inside, and some county fire stations don't have four firefighters working at the same time, he said.

Wright also told the panel that staffing shortages cause firefighter injuries. County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a panel member, noted that vacancies resulting from injuries accounted for about $2 million of the department's $7.2 million in overtime last fiscal year.

Union officials said the department is so understaffed that almost any time firefighters use leave it creates a need to pay overtime. Because of that, Wright said, it doesn't matter whether 88 firefighters are off on the same day, as happened the day after the July 4th holiday.

Members said that at the next panel meeting, on Oct. 15, they will further discuss what they called "the July 5th dilemma."

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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