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Lightfoot cracks down on absenteeism and abuse of family leave among city workers

In the coming months, Lightfoot said she plans to issue a new policy “that codifies and clarifies” the city’s policies.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who spearheaded a 2016 Absenteeism Task Force, at a recent City Council meeting.
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has put city department heads on notice they will be held personally responsible for employee absenteeism and abuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act that one influential alderman says is costing Chicago taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars.”

In a July 26 memo addressed to “commissioners and department heads,” Lightfoot called reining in absenteeism “an issue of great importance to me.”

As she prepares to lower the boom on Chicago taxpayers to erase a $1 billion-plus shortfall, Lightfoot noted that, “there is still a significant amount of work to be done” to reduce an absenteeism rate that, according to Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), remains quadruple the rate in private industry and in other government agencies.

“As a department head, you are responsible for effectively managing employee absenteeism and maintaining accurate records in the Chicago Automated Time and Attendance system,” the mayor wrote.

“All city employees are expected to swipe in and out each day, work a full day for a full day’s pay, abide by all personnel rules and ensure that absences from work are properly requested. These are non-negotiable expectations for every city employee, regardless of position, title or function.”

In April 2016, an absenteeism task force spearheaded by Smith called for the Chicago Police and Fire Departments to move from their “paper-based timekeeping system” to an electronic system that uses biometric time clocks and “hand geometry technology.”

Employees swipe their identification badges, then put their hands on a palm reader that reads their fingerprints.

The transition was expected to be completed by the winter of 2017 for the Chicago Fire Department and one year later for the Chicago Police Department.

Last year, police officers began swiping in at the beginning of their shifts. On Sept. 30, the rank-and-file will finally move to a “second swipe” at the end of their shifts, according to Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

The report also recommended that the city: adopt a “common working definition” of absenteeism and comprehensive swiping policy, streamline attendance codes, establish a dashboard that publicly displays lost work-time rates and trends for each city department, reform and streamline progressive discipline for absenteeism, provide departments with “actionable monthly reports” and hold managers accountable for fair and consistent enforcement.

In the coming months, Lightfoot said she plans to issue a new policy “that codifies and clarifies” the city’s policies.

In the meantime, she expects department heads to do their best to address “overt absenteeism,” which she called the “most egregious form” of abuse.

“Each department that receives an Absenteeism Action Report is to fully update and submit the report to [the budget office] by the 7th of each month and effectively use progressive discipline to correct undesired employee absenteeism,” Lightfoot wrote.

“OBM will be providing me with a summary report of actions taken each month, and I will be following up with each of you as warranted to discuss any concerns. Please make this reporting a priority.”

Smith noted that the average absenteeism rate for local government agencies was 1.7 percent last year, which is “comparable to many private industries.”

In Chicago, the absenteeism rate fell from a high of 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014 to 4.7 percent in the last quarter of 2018. That’s still nearly four times the national average and does not yet include the Police and Fire Departments.

Smith also noted a “disturbing” trend: absenteeism, FMLA abuse and other “lost time” at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications has “climbed back up” to 7.4 percent from a low of 4.9 percent in 2016, she said.

“There are millions of dollars to be mined in making sure that people come to work. We need to do things like this to restore faith by the taxpayers in how the city is spending their money,” Smith said.

Before the 2016 reforms, Chicago lacked “the most basic of uniform policies and discipline,” Smith said. Since then, progress has been made but not nearly enough.

“It really takes a mayor who is the boss — and I don’t mean that in a Mike Royko sense — to keep her own house in order. And I think that’s what she’s stepping up to do,” Smith said.

The switch to electronic record-keeping also holds potential to reduce annual police overtime that routinely tops $100 million.

Two years ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson concluded that Chicago has wasted millions on police overtime because of an “unchecked culture of abuse” and “inefficient management” that failed to control costs, eliminate fraud or prevent officer fatigue.