ELYRIA — In 2010, Elyria forked over more than $1.3 million to employees who claimed to be sick and could not come to work.
Paid time off for illness is not unusual in either the private or public sector. Still, Elyria officials said reducing the seven-figure number was important, and through a new program of sick leave monitoring have seen a sizable decrease citywide in the amount of sick time taken by employees from 2010 to 2013.
“It’s a part of a process we started when we took office to look at everything, every taxpayer dollar being spent and look for ways to reduce costs when necessary,” Mayor Holly Brinda said.
The city has not resorted to sending a nurse to employees’ homes if they claim to be sick, which Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer tried but backed away from in 2012 after backlash, but the city has identified its worst offenders and has begun doling out punishments.
From write-ups to suspensions, Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka said employees quickly got the message.
“We expect them to come to work every day,” she said Friday.
The cost reductions are quite significant, according to figures provided by Finance Director Ted Pileski.
In the general fund that pays a number of employees across several departments for sick time — the city has seen a 30 percent drop in 2013 compared with 2010.
With the city’s larger departments, the reduction is even more pronounced.
There was an approximately 50 percent reduction in the Fire Department in 2013 compared with 2010 and an approximate 30 percent reduction in the Police Department during that same period.
A drop of 70 percent in 2013 compared with 2010 was seen in the Sanitation Department and there was a 30 percent reduction in the Wastewater Pollution Control Department.
The grand total in 2013 across all city departments and revenue funds was $1,006,124.64 in sick leave pay.
“We just got started really working hard to look at this in mid 2012, and the downward trend started almost immediately,” Siwierka said. “Changing the policies and consistently applying discipline across the board for abusers was huge. It started to send a strong message to the rest of the labor force that we were watching and would discipline when needed.”
Ritenauer said sick leave monitoring is about rooting out abusers and punishing the worst offenders — not the guy who has to take a lot of time off to care for a sick wife. But even with a more congenial approach that mimics the one in Elyria, Lorain has also seen significant reductions.
“We have focused on targeting sick-leave abuse where leave is used for purposes other than illness,” he said.
Siwierka said she has not had to resort to terminating employees for attendance violations, but some employees have signed last-chance agreements.
“We were never on a witch hunt with our employee groups, but the managers know who the abuses are, and until this program there hasn’t really been a consistent policy for them to address those abusers,” she said. “We are talking about those employees who take a vacation day and call in sick the next day or are sick every Monday or Friday.”
In addition, with a policy that started under former Assistant Safety Service Director Elayne Siegfried and continues with Assistant Safety Service Director Richard Jackson, the city has began monitoring and documenting sick leave that should be classified under the Family Medical Leave Act.
“Documentation is important because it protects us as an employer and the employee,” Siwierka said.
Elyria full-time employees earn 4.6 hours of sick time every pay period. They can accumulate hours to be paid at the conclusion of their employment, but the number of hours for most employees that can be banked is capped.
Employees can’t go in the negative by requesting to use sick time that has not been earned.
Also, employees can miss three consecutive days of work before a doctor’s excuse must be presented. If abuse is suspected, the city can require documentation sooner.
“Sick leave costs a lot more than just the dollars and cents of sick pay,” Siwierka said. “It has a ripple effect. Extra employees have to be called in to cover shifts or hours, overtime is used and productivity is affected.”