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Out-Sick Workers Getting Checked

JEMS.com Editor's Note: Do employees in your system frequently call in sick? Does your organization have a good way of dealing with this problem? Sound off below!



CLEVELAND -- For the past 18 months, EMS and firefighter supervisors haven't just been rushing to fires or medical emergencies, they've also been checking up on employees who called in sick.



The checks are done when more than five call off on any day or when people use sick days around holidays and vacations. Employees who don't answer the door when supervisors knock must produce a note or other proof that they visited the doctor or pharmacy or face discipline.



Last week, EMS began pre-discipline hearings for 36 paramedics over sick-time use. Firefighters have already been disciplined.



Employees who call off sick force the city to pay overtime to maintain minimum staffing levels, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. If the city didn't pay the overtime, fire trucks and ambulances would sit idle, said Safety Director Martin Flask.



"Sick time has a detrimental impact on safety services," he said. "Rules have to be followed."



City Hall and the firefighters union have battled over sick time for years. It was a key sticking point in 2004, when then-Mayor Jane Campbell threatened to lay off 150 firefighters to offset a budget deficit.



Firefighters agreed to a package of concessions, including an agreement to curb sick time, in exchange for Campbell only laying off 80 firefighters.



Flask said the number of firefighters calling in sick has decreased in the past few years and only a small number of workers abuse the sick hours. Last year, the city took the unprecedented step of sending supervisors to check in on firefighters or paramedics who call in sick. If they are not home when a supervisor visits, the employee needs to produce a doctor's note or proof of a drugstore visit, Flask said.



Every city employee earns 15 sick days a year and can accumulate the unused days. Flask expects employees to legitimately use sick time for their own illnesses or family illnesses and medical appointments.



Officials from the city's two police unions said officers are not receiving wellness checks. The EMS and fire unions disagree with the home visits.



Stephen Palek, head of the EMS union, said the visits are a form of harassment because the city didn't negotiate them into a contract.



The union instructed paramedics to not answer their doors, Palek said.



The union plans to file an unfair labor practice because the city has threatened to not pay employees who are not home, Palek said.



The fire union opposes the wellness checks, although it agreed to them in its last contract negotiations with the city. The contract provides a progressive form of discipline to solve sick-time abuse, said Mike Norman, secretary treasurer.



The wellness checks create more overtime because firefighters have to attend discipline hearings on a day off, he said.



"We risk our lives for the city," Norman said. "This is lowering our morale."



Flask disagreed.



"This ensures accountability," he said.



To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: mpuente@plaind.com, 216-999-4141



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