Cook County taxpayers likely will shell out extra cash this Fourth of July. We’re not talking about money you will spend on beer, barbecue and fireworks shows.
We’re talking about the extra money it will cost taxpayers to cover overtime pay at the Cook County Jail this holiday weekend if, following a recent a pattern, a high percentage of correctional officers call in sick.
We have no doubt that some will be too sick to work. But forgive us for suspecting — it’s just common sense — that more than a few guards have been abusing sick time and the Family and Medical Leave Act that allows employees to take unpaid leave for medical reasons or to care for sick family members.
“I would assume they are sick,” Dennis Andrews, business agent for Teamsters Local Union No. 700 that represents the Cook County Department of Corrections, told us. “They are using their earned benefit time.”
Using or abusing it? Consider this: On Father’s Day and the following Monday, 524 officers called in sick, exceeding the typical number of absences by 200 to 300, according to Abdon Pallasch, spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Sounds like abuse to us.
The union has to police this. If it doesn’t, the union has nothing to complain about when taxpayers and a certain governor fume about overly powerful public unions that are ripping off the rest of us.
A troubling pattern at the jail must be addressed. The number of sworn staff members calling in to miss work jumps considerably when there is a major sports event or special occasion such as Mother’s Day. Last month when we honored moms 420 officers called in sick.
Sick time and medical leave can be tricky to monitor. Jail officials are taking steps to curb perceived abuse but meet resistance from the union. They are considering asking Congress for more stringent guidelines on family and medical leave, such as more frequent certifications from doctors to confirm illnesses.
Clearly, something has to be done. On Father’s Day, before 7 a.m. shifts began, hundreds of jail officers began calling to use sick days or family and medical leave. Between two shifts that day, 25 percent of the 1,296 officers scheduled for work called in sick. Officials put the jail on lockdown, but inmates still saw visitors and received medical treatment.
Also on Father’s Day, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors played for the NBA championship in Game 7 of the Finals. It was quite a game. Cavaliers’ star LeBron James was named MVP as Cleveland won that city’s first championship in 52 years. It drew a whopping 30.8 million TV viewers.
High call-in rates by officers tend to coincide with popular events in sports. Last year, when the so-called Fight of the Century took place between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, 637 correctional officers called in sick for shifts that day and the next. In February 2015, on Super Bowl Sunday, when a blizzard hit Chicago, 950 officers called in sick over four shifts.
Most officers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act do not take all their sick time at once but intermittently when conditions such as migraine headaches, arthritis or back problems flare up. The law allows for 12 weeks of unpaid time. But officers usually get plenty of opportunities to make up the missed time. The jail is a 24-7 operation. There are always shifts that need to be filled.
So it doesn’t cost some guards anything to miss a shift. But it costs taxpayers a lot. We end up paying overtime to the guards who fill in for sick colleagues.
When officers are sick, they report their absences to a medical call-in center. In an effort to make some officers think twice about calling in sick, jail officials inserted an extra step in the process last weekend. After reporting their illnesses to the call-in center, officers’ calls were forwarded to their supervisors. Wednesday, a chief steward with the union filed a class-action grievance about the extra step. He said forwarding calls to supervisors was a violation of their collective bargaining agreement.
“It’s a stunning example of how difficult it is to create accountability around this issue,” Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer, said.
And it will not endear the union to taxpayers.
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