Nearly half of city 911 call takers on leave, sparking OT problem

SHARE Nearly half of city 911 call takers on leave, sparking OT problem

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, outgoing OEMC Director Gary Schenkel, OEMC Executive Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau on the call-taking floor of OEMC in Chicago in March. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s 911 emergency center is still struggling to get a handle on runaway overtime because 49 percent of call takers are on “some type of” absence tied to the Family and Medical Leave Act, aldermen were told Wednesday.

Testifying at City Council budget hearings, Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said the hiring of 48 additional call takers has reduced overtime by 28,000 hours over the same period last year. That should reduce overtime spending to $9.9 million, down $1 million from a year ago, she said.

But, rampant use of the leave act is still costing the city big-time.

“We have approximately 44 people every single day that call off. That’s about 49 percent of all of the 911 operators we have [who] are on some type of intermittent FMLA. Clearly, this number is much larger than it should be,” Tate-Nadeau said.

“Although I absolutely believe intermittent FMLA is a right of all of our employees, it is something I need to look at to ensure that it’s being utilized correctly. The challenge of intermittent FMLA is that they can call that very day and say, ‘We’re not going to be here.’ Whenever I hire folks back for overtime, I’m hiring them back at a minimum of time-and-a-half to two times the salary.”

FMLA entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave amounting to twelve work weeks in a 12-month period for specified family and medical reasons with continued health insurance.

Eligible reasons include: the birth of and care for the newborn child within one year of birth; adoption or foster care of a child within one year of placement; care of a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition or the employee’s own serious health condition that renders them unable to perform.

Employees can also qualify for circumstances stemming from the military service of a spouse, son, daughter, or parent. Covered employees may also qualify for 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a member of the military who happens to be the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin.

“I need to get to the root cause. Why do we have an issue with intermittent FMLA? What’s causing or driving this to increase? I have some ideas of what I think that is, but I really continue to do my research. Once I’ve completed my research into this issue, I will be able to answer that question,” Tate-Nadeau said.

Tate-Nadeau said a recent “baseline” survey of employees who staff the 911 center floor pinpointed potential reasons for the alarming use of Family and Medical Leave.

Although they are deeply committed to their “incredibly stressful” jobs, morale is “poor” because they don’t like their schedules or working conditions and complain about “inflexibility” in how they can utilize vacation time.

“The way that I resolve that is I ensure that I work on the attrition issue … as it relates to overtime,” the director said, claiming to have addressed “90 percent” of survey gripes.

“I would have bad morale, too, if I walked into my job and someone said that, because someone else didn’t show up, I had to take away their lunch break, [or make them] stay longer because I didn’t have enough people to cover” positions.

The absenteeism problem might help explain why, over one hour during a hectic day recently, the number of 911 calls answered in three rings dropped from 95 percent to 56 percent.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) has worked hard to bring down chronic absenteeism among city employees.

She asked whether union leaders were willing to work with Tate-Nadeau to bring down FMLA at a time when the city is “poised to make a big investment” in both 911 and the 311 non-emergency systems.

“My fellow aldermen and I want to make sure that the taxpayers get what they’re paying for and that we are doing everything we can to make sure that people are working a regular job and [providing] a day’s work for day’s pay. It’s critical to all of our operations,” she said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first budget initially called for eliminating the jobs of 17 fire dispatchers, laying off nine others and shrinking the supervisory ranks from 13 to eight. After union negotiations, the mayor ended up eliminating 10 dispatcher vacancies, demoting three supervisors and one dispatcher and laying off one call taker.

The jobs of 45 police dispatchers were also eliminated. So were four of 22 radio repair technicians.

Over the years, the Chicago Sun-Times has done a series of stories about burgeoning overtime at the 911 center caused by a chronic staffing shortage. It’s prompted a handful of call takers to more than double their salaries in overtime.

In 2013, then-OEMC chief Gary Schenkel told aldermen the problem had skyrocketed because of the logistical nightmare created by a $31 million remodeling project that overhauled the operations floor while 911 center employees continued to answer 15,000 emergency calls each day.

One year later, fire communications officers at the 911 center were shifted from rotating to fixed shifts to speed response times and reduce $9.2 million in annual overtime, despite warnings of employee burnout that could trigger dispatch “mistakes.”

For 70 years, fire call takers and dispatchers had worked four straight days on the same shift, took two days off, then switched to a different watch and repeated the cycle. There were three watches — and those remain the same: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Schenkel ended the rotating schedule for 86 fire communications officers over the strenuous objections of their union, IBEW Local 9. Instead, employees who field calls for fires and medical emergencies were assigned to fixed shifts, with the largest contingent assigned to the busiest, third watch.

Seventy-eight percent of fire alarm employees had opposed the change. But, Schenkel maintained that the IBEW contract empowered the city to “make operational changes as necessary” without union consent.

Fire and EMS dispatcher Jeff Johnson, union steward for IBEW Local 9, argued at the time that “no other major city in the nation has straight shifts for fire dispatch” and there was a good reason why.

“You don’t get burnout caused by high stress levels all the time,” he said.

“Overtime is going to go up. This is going to end up costing the city more money. People will use more sick and vacation time to reduce stress and handle doctors appointments, family and child care emergencies.”

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