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Editorial: Another holiday sickout at the Cook County Jail

Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial board

How much did you spend onMother's Daythis year? More than you think, if you live in Cook County.

In addition to whatever they shelled out for cards, flowers and Sunday brunch, county taxpayers got stuck with more than $75,000 in overtime costs to cover for more than 400 correctional officers and supervisors who called in sick.

The Cook County Jail was on lockdown all day — for the safety of inmates and the overburdened employees who did show up for work. Inmates weren't allowed out of their cells for exercise or other activities because more essential tasks, such as transporting detainees to medical appointments, took priority.

All three shifts were short-handed, with up to 75 percent more correctional officers out "sick" than on a typical Sunday.

Why did we use quotation marksin the sentence above? Because we couldn't figure out how to roll our eyes in print. We've noted before that spikes in absenteeism at the jail track suspiciously with snowstorms, holidays and major sporting events.

Recall that 142 correctional officers called in sick for the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift Jan. 12 — the subzero morning after the NCAA championship football game. That's 18 percent of the staff scheduled for that shift.

On New Year's Eve, 135 called in sick for the 3 to 11 p.m. shift.

Last year, 637 called in sick over four shifts for a big sports weekend that included the Kentucky Derby and a live broadcast of the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao "Fight of the Century." And 877 called in sick over Super Bowl weekend, which also included a blizzard.

As in those cases, more than half the officers who didn't make it to work on Mother's Day invoked the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for workers who need time off for serious health or family issues. One in three Cook County correctional officers has been certified as eligible for FMLA.

Most people think of FMLA as continuous time to care for a new baby or an ailing parent, for example, or to undergo chemotherapy. But roughly nine of 10 Cook County correctional officers who are certified for FMLA qualify for what's known as intermittent leave. That allows them to take short periods of unscheduled time off to deal with episodic conditions like asthma or migraines.

It also complicates Sheriff Tom Dart'sefforts to get chronic absenteeism under control. Suspected abuses of the regular sick time policy can be dealt with through the disciplinary process — by demanding a doctor's note, for example. FMLA certification pre-empts much of that.

Funny how those outbreaks tend to strike on holidays and big sports weekends. Kind of like in middle school, the day of the big algebra exam.

The Mother's Day flu was short-lived, of course. Staffing levels — which are dictated by a federal consent decree — returned to normal in time for Monday's 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. All those sick correctional officers returned to work, feeling much better! We're not fooled. We don't think Mom was either.


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