Allegheny County jail guards are most likely to file for federal sick leave

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Allegheny County jail guards are four times more likely to take medical leave than their colleagues in other departments, a medical -- and management -- mystery that has county leadership seeking outside help.

County figures show that more than a quarter of jail employees have filed for federal sick leave protection in 2014 -- a rate that has raised eyebrows across the region. In other county departments, the leave rate hovers around 6 percent.

This disparity -- which leaders from other counties say can't be blamed on the stress of a jail guard's job alone -- has made clear to the county leaders that its understaffed human resources department needs extra help. To that end, it will soon accept proposals to outsource administration of the Family Medical Leave Act, the federal law that protects workers' jobs should they take ill -- and the very provision that correctional officers have found so popular.

"There are concerns [whether] people are using it appropriately and legally," said the county's human resources director, Laura Zaspel, who would not comment on the jail specifically. "FMLA is a complicated process. It takes a lot of staff time to manage it."

Passed in 1993, the federal act allows employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave each year. All they need is a doctor's note showing that they or a family member are recovering from an illness. By law, an employer cannot fire them for falling ill or taking time off to recuperate.

Employees can take "straight" leave, where they're off for a continuous block of time. But in Allegheny County, it's far more popular to take "intermittent" leave, where a worker takes days off from work when necessary for medical treatment but otherwise clocks in normally.

Of the 425 Allegheny County employees who have filed for sick leave, 75 percent have asked for intermittent leave, records show. At the jail, that figure jumps to 90 percent, or 139 out of the 159 workers on leave.

That's way out of whack with other employers of comparable size, where only 10 percent of FMLA-eligible employees choose intermittent leave, according to a study conducted by the county HR department.

Intermittent leave is easier to abuse. Since employers legally can't say no to a worker going on medical leave, employees can use FMLA to weld ironclad vacations, pulling the medical card to get out of mandatory assignments.

And even though medical leave is supposed to be unpaid, employees often still get their salary. That's because Allegheny County allows workers to use their vacation days and sick time while on FMLA.

"FMLA does kind of give the employee a wild card they can use if a day off is needed," said Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for the Allegheny County Controller's office. "If it's not receiving proper supervision at the departmental level, it's something that can be ripe for abuse."

And fraud is notoriously difficult to root out, experts say: Employers are barred from asking anything beyond the most rudimentary questions about an employee's health.

"It is something that is administratively not the easiest thing to manage," said Charles Lamberton, a Downtown attorney who specializes in FMLA law. "There's no doubt that, with every statute on the book that entitles employees to relief from work, there are going to be some employees who use it for purposes it wasn't intended for."

The jail has the highest proportion of employees eligible for sick leave, with 154 of its 614 workers (25 percent) filing for FMLA protection. Next is the county real estate department, with 18 percent of employees using the act, followed by the emergency medical services department, with 14 percent.

In many departments, going on medical leave may cost the county next to nothing. But at the jail, where shifts must be fully staffed regardless of how many on-duty officers are available, county officials say the high number of people off has racked up higher overtime.

While 2013 was relatively mild, with $1.7 million in overtime payments, 2012 hit a three-year high of $3.2 million, according to the controller's office.

"Is it all because of FMLA?" Mr. Korinski said. "No, but I think FMLA certainly plays a role."

Of course, there could be a simple reason for the high rate of sick leave at the jail: Guarding prisoners is tough work. Correctional officers face stress, danger and the unending monotony of vigilance.

Jail union leaders say anyone questioning their members' sick leave should spend a shift in their shoes.

"This is the most dangerous and most stressful job in law enforcement. Hands down," said Chuck Mandarino, president of the Allegheny County Independent Prison Employees Union. "Many police officers have come in and voiced they would not do this job. I believe that would lead to a higher call-off rate and usage of sick time."

That said, other area jails aren't seeing the same high numbers. At the Beaver County Jail, only 3 percent of jail employees have filed for FMLA leave, human resources director Rick Darbut said.

And in Washington County, jail warden John Temas estimates only one or two of his 73 employees have signed up.

What's going on in Allegheny County? Mr. Temas can only scratch his head. "They're doing something to get around the sick leave policy -- that's my guess," he said.

County leaders hope an outside firm will bring clarity to the cumbersome process. In a request for proposals issued Jan. 31, the county announced it's looking for a firm that could centralize FMLA administration, which is currently spread throughout more than a dozen departments.

More importantly, human resources leaders are looking for an adviser who could recommend policy changes and chart a path through the sometimes-tortuous requirements of the act. The contract would begin May 1.

In doing so, the county has targeted sick leave as an area in need of improvement. The county's biggest cost is its personnel, and benefits like FMLA, as one county leader put it, are "a cost driver."

"It became apparent there were some issues overall," said Jennifer Liptak, chief of staff to county Executive Rich Fitzgerald. "The better we create consistencies within how we manage our payroll, everyone will be treated fairly."

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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