Allegheny County hires firm to curb employee sick-leave abuse

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Federal law entitles Dan Kovacs to up to 12 weeks of job-protected time off for medical reasons. Last year, the former Allegheny County correctional officer took more than half of it.

"You're locked in there -- the stress level is high," said Mr. Kovacs, who has diabetes. "I read in an article that the average lifespan of correction officers is 56 years, because of the stress."

But as the county overhauls how it handles extended sick time, administrators will be taking a closer look at employees such as Mr. Kovacs -- especially at the Allegheny County Jail, where 25 percent of correctional officers have signed up for federal medical leave.

The 44-year-old now has a stress of a different kind: He's fighting for his job after he said the county suspended and fired him for suspected sick-time abuse.

"The county is speaking with a split tongue," he said. "They'll pass these people, give them family medical leave -- and then they'll complain to the newspaper that they shouldn't have it."

At the center of the controversy is Allegheny County's administration of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a 1993 federal law that allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off for family and medical reasons without losing their job. The leave is unpaid once employees use up their vacation time.

With multiple bargaining units, 20 departments and approximately 7,000 employees to deal with, the county's human resources department says it's overwhelmed in managing medical leave.

So about a year ago, Laura Zaspel, Allegheny County human resources director, researched a way to improve the administration of FMLA and decided that it would be best for the county to pursue what is called a "clinical oversight model."

On May 1, the county entered into a three-year, $185,000-a-year contract with UPMC WorkPartners, a firm that already manages the county's workers' compensation. Now, when an employee brings paperwork from a doctor claiming the need for time off, the county will have a medical professional fielding that request, Ms. Zaspel said.

"We don't have the expertise to say, 'Well, that doesn't seem right,' " she said.

Among Allegheny County's workforce, it's far more common for employees to request intermittent leave, rather than leave in a continuous block of time, another factor that adds to the difficulty of administering the program.

By outsourcing the FMLA administration, the county hopes to ensure employees have the leave they are entitled to while managing the program efficiently and effectively, Ms. Zaspel said. And if that reduces the number of leaves approved, the county wouldn't turn that down, she said.

Leaves have been a particular concern at the jail, where more than a quarter of employees were enrolled for FMLA benefits at the beginning of 2014. That's far above the county's average departmental rate of 6 percent, a surge that's become a driver of overtime at the facility, which must be staffed around the clock.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of 2013 jail payroll records shows the county may have some cause for concern. Jail guards are more likely to take FMLA on Mondays and Fridays than any other day of the week, padding weekends. Records show Wednesday is the least popular day of the work week to take off.

The review also revealed more than 30 instances where jail guards took FMLA time off directly before, after or during vacations, lengthening their time off. On one occasion, a guard used FMLA on Christmas Eve, linking together a five-day holiday break.

But Mr. Kovacs, the fired jail guard, dismissed the figures. His colleagues use medical leave because they need it, not because they're looking for more vacation, he said.

Mr. Kovacs has diabetes and said he relied on FMLA time to recover from blood sugar shocks. Despite his condition, he has posted impressive records in weightlifting circles, an avocation that earned him several championship titles -- and cost him his job, he said.

In January, he said, the county terminated him after accusing him of abusing sick time. Before that, he said, he served a suspension after taking FMLA time off before a powerlifting competition in November.

Mr. Kovacs denies abusing FMLA, saying the county punished him for exercising a right he already cleared through human resources. But he has no problem saying he took regular sick time off in July to attend a weightlifting event in Texas, a use that he says is allowed by his union contract, citing a 2009 agreement.

"We get 10 sick days, and people use them for anything -- Pirates games, family functions," he said.

Jail union president Chuck Mandarino could not be reached for comment. County spokeswoman Amie Downs said she had no knowledge of an agreement allowing free use of sick days.

More organizations are looking to outsource administration of FMLA, said Melissa Dunn, senior director of marketing and business development for UPMC WorkPartners, which launched its leave administration services in 2008.

"This is one of our fastest-growing areas of service that we are providing to the marketplace," Ms. Dunn said. "More and more employers are looking to outsource it, because it does take a lot of time."

As written, federal medical leave law isn't so complicated. But the complex dance it requires of employers -- maintaining an employee's privacy while holding them accountable -- can prove tricky.

UPMC WorkPartners employs nurses and physicians who can "seek clarity" on the leave the employee is requesting. If employees submit paperwork from a doctor supporting requests for leave but then take more time than is requested, WorkPartners will ask the employees to speak to their doctor about their condition and secure the amended paperwork to show they need more time off.

Pushing the employee to have another conversation with a doctor has "produced significant reductions" in FMLA time, said Linda Croushore, director of disability services for WorkPartners.

WorkPartners also will help the county track the amount of time off employees are taking while on leave, something that can be especially difficult with intermittent FMLA leave, Ms. Dunn said.

"It really is a consistency issue," said Barbara Parees, deputy county manager. "We want to be fair and consistent and have medical documentation for what is occurring."

Over the next few months, WorkPartners will transition the county over to its system. Come Aug. 1, dedicated leave specialists from WorkPartners will be the point of contact for county employees applying for FMLA leave.

Mr. Kovacs, now fighting to get his job back, is interested to see if things change.

"You can bring in UPMC, that's fine," he said. "But I'm going to tell you -- there is still going to be the same amount of officers on family medical leave."


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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