An examination of payroll records and information provided by Fire Chief James McLaughlin show that virtually no paid sick leave is used by department personnel, and that at the end of the year department members get a bonus – in some cases more than $5,000 – for unused sick days.
The total cost to taxpayers for the calendar year ending Dec. 31, 2015, was $442,913.87. That included a one-time payment of $18,839 to John Williams upon his retirement for unused sick time. That amount promises to increase by 50 percent in the current year under a contract approved by the mayor and the City Council last year.
The issue of sick leave and payment for unused sick time was raised by Warwick resident and activist Rob Cote, who in recent months has filed multiple requests for public information. Follow-up inquiries and examination of the information by Ken Block have raised the question of why the city has contracted for firefighter sick time, since by state statute law enforcement personnel are entitled to unlimited paid sick time for job-related injuries or illness.
Block termed the sick pay provision unique to Warwick, saying it gives firefighters an “8-percent bonus.” He said the system gives a firefighter the ability to collect payment for an additional 400 days in the course of a 20-year career.
In addition to being paid for 15 days – 75 percent of the 20 days set by contract – for every year after the seventh year without using sick time, they receive 75 percent payment for the accrued 140 days upon retirement at the rate of pay at which they retired.
Block – who ran as a Republican for governor two years ago and was beaten in a party primary by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung – is the founder of Watchdog RI. The group conducted an extensive examination of fire departments across the state.
“What Rhode Island is spending compared to other states with large fire departments is 33 percent to 100 percent more than any other place we looked at,” Block said.
He reasons payment for unused sick time has simply become a means for elected officials seeking firefighter union support to bloat their pay without making it obvious to the taxpayers who have to foot the bill.
According to department records for 2015, 114 firefighters who have all accrued 140 days of unused sick days were paid for 50 percent of the 20 days they didn’t use until July 1, and then for 75 percent of the days for the rest of the year. As some reached the 140 days within less than a full year, they didn’t receive payment for the full amount.
According to an examination of the dates of hire, an additional eight firefighters had been on the force a minimum of seven years but failed to meet the 140-day threshold because they had used sick days.
“What we see from the data is, there are a whole bunch of firefighters at or very close to receiving reimbursement for nearly every sick day they were given that year. And what that amounts to, if they’re receiving reimbursement for 20 sick days, with a new contract, they’re being paid for 15 of those 20 days, they’re getting paid at 75 percent, that amounts to an 8-percent bonus based on the sheer number of shifts being reimbursed versus the number of shifts worked on average per year,” Block said.
How is it that firefighters are so healthy?
Neither McLaughlin nor Assistant Chief David Morse had an answer. They said the department rigorously questions firefighters who take sick time and requires them to provide a physician’s note if they are sick for two or more consecutive days.
Might substitution also be used when a firefighter is not feeling well and, so as not to use a sick day and lose the pay it represents, he calls on a buddy to work for him?
“If you’re out sick, you’re out sick. We wouldn’t condone that,” McLaughlin said.
“I don’t believe that’s happening,” Morse said. “The department today has changed. It used to be easy to get guys to work for you.”
Reflecting, Morse said firefighters used to have “two families” – one at home and the other the department. He said firefighting has become “more of a job than a career,” without the same level of camaraderie and sense of family.
So, how is it, if firefighters are simply healthy, that the department consistently exceeds its overtime budget, frequently to the tune of more than $1.5 million a year?
McLaughlin explained that the department works with “six floaters” for every shift. These firefighters fill in for those on vacation, bereavement, parental leave, and who are absent for a variety of other reasons. When there are not sufficient floaters to cover absences and maintain minimum manning requirements set by contract, personnel are called in at time and a half. There is no breakout showing why overtime was used, and if it was used to pay for a firefighter on vacation or because he was out sick.
As of this year, the department is breaking out overtime costs as they pertain to additional training of personnel as funded by a federal grant.
Cote said he became interested in digging into the number of unused sick days after looking at the city’s budget for the last nine years. What popped out was the allocation for sick time and other leave. The amount was remarkably consistent and small in comparison to the department’s overall budget from year to year. The appropriation ranged from a low of $11,174 spent in fiscal year 2014-15 to a high of $22,389 in fiscal year 2010-11. As it turned out, McLaughlin explained, the line item that triggered Cote’s curiosity pertains to the unused sick time pay for civilian department personnel.
“I’ve been in business for myself for a long, long time,” Cote said, “and I know how to read balance sheets.”
Cote dug deeper. He submitted a series of public records requests looking for a list of department personnel, when they were hired, the number of sick days used, and the number of accrued unused sick days. He also obtained a list of all department members paid for unused sick days and the amounts for 2015.
The unused sick pay payback system, which is richer than any other municipal contract, got even more lucrative under the contract negotiated by the administration last May and approved by the City Council in mid-July after it was put in effect. In essence, the department was operating under a contract that had not been ratified.
The new agreement enriches the unused sick day payout by 50 percent. Prior to the agreement, those firefighters who had accumulated 140 unused sick days were paid for 10 of the 20 sick days allotted each year at the end of the year. Now they are paid for 15 days. Members of the administration and union representative William Lloyd negotiated the contract.
“Now in most work scenarios, if your workforce is not using sick days, that’s considered a really good thing, and it is. The twist in Warwick is that unused sick days get monetized; firefighters are given a cash bonus for not using their sick days,” Block said.
“What Warwick has done, is they’re allowing firefighters to bank 140 days, and once they bank those 140 days, instead of losing any additional unused sick time, they now allow firefighters to annually cash in any unused sick days that they have,” he continued.
In a recent interview where Block reviewed information obtained by Cote, Block dug into the contracts of other urban area departments, discovering that state law guarantees paid sick days for firefighters. He sees no reason for firefighter contracts to include sick day provisions. The law does not include a buy-back provision for unused sick leave.
In addition, under the provisions of the Warwick contract, the chief has the authority to determine if a sick day is to be docked from a firefighter’s accumulated sick days. Sick days used because of an injury sustained while on duty – say, a sprained ankle requiring physical therapy – are not deducted from the accrued days, thus not reducing the end of the year payment.
“Warwick has now perverted what the sick time was meant to be. Sick time was meant to be a safety net – if you got ill, your expenses are covered and your paycheck still flows to your family. But now what they’ve said is, they’re giving what I consider to be a ridiculous number of days, 20, given how few are actually being used, and now they’re paying bonuses for not using this excessive number of days. Nationally, the number of sick days given, on average, by employers to employees is 10,” Block said.
“It’s 8 percent of pay at the 75-percent reimbursement, so before the 75-percent reimbursement, it was 6 percent of pay. So taxpayers should have been told, and should have been aware, that on top of the 3-percent annual raises granted in this contract, there’s an extra 2-percent raise on top of that based on the bonus for the sick days. And that’s where the harm of this kind of contortion really comes in, that’s why I say it’s not transparent,” he continued.
“The question is, what’s changed with the job? How does anybody justify that level of compensation increase? It blows away the cost of inflation; it blows everything away. If they’re going to do it, own up to it and put it into the announced raises. This is where I get my ire up, as someone who aspires to get into politics; if you’re going to do something like that, you do it through the front door; you don’t do it through the back door.”
Looking at the long-range picture, Cote points out that as of Feb. 1 when he obtained the information, firefighters had accrued a total of 22,785 days that “eventually must be monetized and paid for by the taxpayers.”