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Sick calls soar for Cook County jail guards on big boxing weekend

Monday, May 04, 2015
Chicago Sun-Times
by Frank Main

Did hundreds of Cook County Sheriff’s jail guards come down with the Pacquiao-Mayweather flu over the weekend?

That’s what sheriff’s officials suspect after 637 correctional officers called in sick for shifts between 7 a.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday — more than double the total on other recent weekends.

Cara Smith, executive director of the jail, said she suspects many officers took time off to watch Saturday night’s live broadcast of the “Fight of the Century” in Las Vegas, in which boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. outlasted Manny Pacquiao.

“There was a historic sporting event taking place at the same time,” Smith said. “It certainly raises that question.”

Another major sporting event, the Kentucky Derby, also was held Saturday.

Smith said she doesn’t doubt some of the officers were truly sick or needed to use the Family and Medical Leave Act. But those who took a day off to see the fight put a burden on other officers who filled their shifts, costing taxpayers a bundle in overtime, she said.

Annie Slezickey, communications director for Teamsters Local 700, responded that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the jail, “will use any excuse he has to throw correctional officers under the bus and the union will not stand for it.”

The union, which represents more than 3,400 correctional officers at the jail, has been fighting with the sheriff’s administration to improve safety for officers, Slezickey said.

As for whether officers had played hooky to watch a boxing match, Slezickey said, “there are a number of factors that can be attributed to any call-off. Instead of the sheriff focusing on these alleged call-offs, why doesn’t he focus on some major issues affecting the jail such as his lack of concern for officer safety?”

Smith said some officers were asked to work double shifts and others were asked to work on their days off to cover for those on sick leave over the weekend. The result will be a monster overtime bill, Smith said.

“This significant absenteeism has a very significant impact on our operations and comes at a steep price for taxpayers,” she said. “We greatly appreciate the staff who went the extra mile.”

The jail has mandatory staffing levels that must be met 24 hours a day for safety reasons, Smith said.

‘The work-life balance is an issue I am very sympathetic to,” she said. But “it’s not like traditional jobs where you can just ask for a day off.”

Smith expressed her concerns about the weekend spike in sick leave in an email to Teamsters Local 700.

The weekend’s 637 call-ins came over four shifts from 7 a.m. Saturday through 7 a.m. Sunday. In comparison, 288 correctional officers took sick days during the same four shifts on the weekend of April 18, and 209 called in sick on the weekend of April 25.

The last big spike in sick leave at the Cook County Jail happened over the Feb. 1 weekend, which featured both the Super Bowl and a blizzard, Smith said. More than 950 officers called in sick during four shifts over that Sunday and Monday, she said.

Smith said her office has been making a big push to reduce overtime expenses this year. Likewise, the Illinois Department of Corrections is grappling with overtime, an issue highlighted in a recent report by the state’s Auditor General.

Asked whether state prison guards also took sick time during the Mayweather fight, Illinois corrections spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said, “There was a higher than average number of call-offs at Stateville Correctional Center during the 3 to 11 p.m. shift on Saturday . . . however, we are unable to correlate this increase in call-offs with the boxing match.”



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