LORAIN — Lorain Safety Service Director Robert Fowler is dispatching Lorain City Health Department nurses and other city employees to the homes of city workers who call off in an effort to curb sick time abuse.
“Every employee that calls in sick is getting a visit from us,” Fowler said.
And it doesn’t matter how far an employee lives from the city, someone will come knocking, he said.
So far two city employees have received notices that they are being investigated for alleged sick time abuse, Fowler said, although he did not elaborate on what the allegations against Firefighter Richard Valentik and Engineering Department employee Robert Cobert are.
Both men could lose their jobs, and predisciplinary hearings for them are scheduled this week, according to letters they were sent last week.
Valentik is being investigated for “insubordination, neglect of duty, violations of work rules, theft in office, abuse of sick leave and dishonesty.” Cobert’s letter said he is being investigated for the same reasons in addition to “falsification of documents” but contained no mention of “neglect of duty.”
Employees can be terminated for their first violation of sick leave rules, Fowler said.
Fowler said the policy of sending someone to check on city employees who call in is part of Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer’s overall philosophy of cracking down on violations of the city’s rules and regulations.
He acknowledged the visits aren’t popular with workers and union leaders.
“I’m not here to make people happy,” Fowler said. “My job is to hold people accountable.”
Jonathon George, president of the Lorain firefighters’ union, said firefighters aren’t pleased with the policy because many feel it lumps good workers in with those who are actually taking advantage of the system.
“It’s definitely uncomfortable for my guys,” George said.
Fowler said the first home check was done in February, but the city began doing it for every employee in late May. He said the city is still working out a formal deal with the Health Department for using its nurses.
City workers are allowed to call off if they or a family member is sick, for medical appointments and, in some cases, for bereavement, Fowler said. Employees should either be at home or have an explanation for their whereabouts if they’re not there when the city checks.
“We have the right to inspect residences, and if you’re not there, that bodes the question of where were you?” Fowler said.
One side effect of the new policy, he said, is that the city has learned that it didn’t have correct addresses for many city workers, all of whom must now update their home addresses.
Fowler said that while checking up on sick employees isn’t something that’s been done in recent years, previous administrations have done so. He said every union contract the city has contains some provision that allows the city to confirm workers are indeed sick.
The contract for United Steelworkers Local 6621, which represents city employees, specifically contains a provision allowing the nursing visit, Fowler said.
Local 6621 President Jack Critelli, who works in the city’s Sewer Department, said the union intends to meet with Fowler later this week to discuss the issue. He said he didn’t want to comment extensively on the policy until after that meeting.
“We are going to defend our members vigorously,” Critelli said.
George said his union also is examining the policy.
“It does seem extreme, and we’re kind of looking into it, but haven’t found anything illegal,” he said.
Calls to two other union heads in the city weren’t returned Tuesday.
Lorain County Administrator Jim Cordes and Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda said the county and Elyria don’t have similar policies for their employees.
Cordes said the county does keep an eye on sick leave usage and typically requires a doctor’s note whenever someone has been off for more than three days.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.