Jailhouse leave: Allegheny County must get to the root of the disparity

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Allegheny County leaders have a puzzling problem to solve: Why are jail guards taking medical leave at a rate that is far higher than both employees in other county departments and corrections officers in nearby jails?

County figures show that more than one-fourth of jail employees have filed for days off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which protects workers’ jobs if they become ill — even if they’ve exhausted accrued vacation days or sick time. That’s four times the rate of medical leaves taken by other county workers.

Sheer numbers aren’t the only way in which jail guards are outliers. They also have been taking their days on an intermittent basis, rather than in longer stretches of time, by a much higher rate. Of the 425 county employees who filed for the leave, 75 percent took it on an occasional basis; among jail employees, the figure was 90 percent. By contrast, the rate was only 10 percent among employers of a size comparable to the county.

At the jail, where ill employees must be replaced in order to provide adequate staffing, use of the leave time, especially on a short-term basis with little notice, translates into higher overtime costs.

The practice is pervasive enough, and the associated paperwork voluminous enough, that the county’s human resources department can’t keep up with FMLA. The county is seeking an outside firm to administer the program, but that’s only part of the problem.

It’s even more important that whichever firm the county hires can give it sound advice to guarantee that FMLA is being used appropriately and not abused. Help can’t come fast enough.

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