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The jailhouse flu hits Cook County

Friday, January 15, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial

Sometimes you just don't feel like dragging yourself to work. The car is snowed in. There's a big game on ESPN this afternoon. It's Monday. This is why God — or your collective bargaining agreement — gave you sick days, right? No, actually, it isn't. But that seems to be the attitude at the Cook County Jail, where spikes in the number of employees calling in sick often track suspiciously with snowstorms, holidays or major sporting events. Last Tuesday, the jail had to be placed on lockdown after 142 correctional officers — 18 percent of those scheduled to work — called in sick for the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. Is it unfair to wonder if this outbreak had something to do with Monday night's NCAA football championship game and Tuesday morning's subzero windchill? We don't think so. Consider:

•135 people called in sick for the 3 to 11 p.m. shift on New Year's Eve.

•637 called in sick over four shifts during the weekend of May 2, 2015, which included the Kentucky Derby and a live broadcast of the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao "Fight of the Century." Cook County Jail lockdown lifted after staff numbers return to normal

•877 called in sick over four shifts during the Feb. 1, 2015 weekend, which featured the Super Bowl and a blizzard.

Yes, everyone gets sick. And some people in every occupation, we'd venture, have taken a questionable sick day at some point. But the jail is a 24/7 workplace, with minimum staffing levels dictated by a federal consent decree. Employees who are called in to cover for those who are out sick get overtime pay. Tuesday's big sick day cost taxpayers $20,000 in OT. Unexpected staff shortages force the jail to order lockdowns, during which inmates aren't allowed out of their cells for exercise or other activities because essential tasks, like transporting detainees to court hearings, take priority. Responding to a medical emergency or a fight between inmates can be dicey when the jail is shorthanded. It's in everyone's interest — detainees, correctional officers, taxpayers — for the jail to be adequately staffed. Sheriff Tom Dart's attempts to get chronic absenteeism under control have been complicated by a curious phenomenon: Nearly 1 in 3 correctional officers have been certified under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for workers who need time off for serious health or family issues. Almost all of them — 93 percent — qualified for "intermittent" leave. That designation allows them to take short periods of time off to deal with episodic conditions such as asthma or migraines, as opposed to "continuous" leave for a single purpose, like caring for a new baby. Of the 142 correctional officers who called in sick Tuesday, 82 were covered under FMLA and 60 claimed a regular sick day. Why does it matter? Because suspected abuses of the regular sick leave policy can be dealt with more readily through the department's disciplinary process. An employee with chronic Friday-and-Monday sickness can be required to produce a doctor's note, for example. But FMLA certification pre-empts much of that. That makes it hard for an employer to respond to a rash of alleged asthma attacks on a big sports weekend, for example. Teamsters Local 700, which represents correctional officers and investigators at the jail, responded angrily to news coverage of Tuesday's lockdown, with a statement defending members' right to use their earned sick days. No argument here. But what about the curious correlation between absenteeism and televised sports events? A follow-up statement blamed the spikes that coincided with the Super Bowl and the NCAA game on winter weather, not sports. Last time we checked, snow was not an illness. The statements also rehash some labor-management issues and point to the risks of dealing with violent detainees day in and day out. We get it: It's a demanding, potentially dangerous job. It also pays pretty well — starting salary for a corrections officer is $51,969 a year — and it comes with some generous benefits, including paid sick days. But sick days are sick days, not floating holidays to be taken spontaneously. For the three shifts that covered 7 a.m. Feb. 1, 2015 to 7 a.m. Feb. 2, 2015, 764 correctional officers — 37 percent of those assigned to work — called in sick. What are the odds of that? And what are the odds that it would happen on Super Bowl Sunday?

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