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Column: Jail tries 'talk-to-the-boss' Rx for 'sick' guards

Friday, July 01, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

There are just two problems with Cara Smith's inspired idea for reducing absenteeism among guards at the Cook County Jail.

The first is that there's no evidence so far that it's working.

Smith, who is the chief policy officer for SheriffTom Dart, several weeks ago initiated the implementation of a new policy in which corrections officers who call in sick are transferred over to speak with their divisional supervisors, the ones who will have to scramble to adequately staff their units.

Previously, guards merely had to dial a call-in center on the grounds of the jail at 2700 S. California Ave. and tell the operator they were taking a medical day. No explanation required. No need for malingerers to put on a scratchy or woebegone voice or to invent debilitating symptoms.

"It's easier to tell a nameless, faceless person at a call-in center that you're not coming to work than it is to tell a colleague or a supervisor who's going to have to cover your shift for you," said Smith, explaining the thinking behind the change, which was approved by the sheriff.

Harder to lie, in other words.

Harder to pretend that you're sick in order to be off work for a holiday or a major sporting event. Harder to be part of a predictable exodus that forces the jail to go on lockdown and rack up expensive overtime shifts.

You've probably seen the news reports. Father's Day. Mother's Day. The Super Bowl. High-profile boxing matches. The number of guards calling in sick or invoking the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) increases dramatically, nearly doubles in some cases.

Smith said FMLA complicates matters. The jail has an unusually large percentage of employees certified for "intermittent" unpaid excused absences whenever such conditions as back pain, headaches or asthma flare up. They can then usually make up the hours with fill-in shifts.

"The officers have earned their sick time," said Dennis Andrews, the business agent forTeamstersLocal 700, the union that represents Cook County Department of Corrections employees. "They've earned it. It's their time."

Most of us, though, see sick pay as a cushion, not a perk. And we don't equate medical leave with vacation time.

I asked Andrews in a follow-up text if he thought it was relevant to ask whether these jail guards were actually sick on these sick days.

"I don't question the officers' dedication," he replied. "They are hardworking public servants."

So these astonishing and predictable spikes in absenteeism are purely coincidental and reflect actual illness?

"Yes," he replied. "We believe and trust our members."

Andrews wanted to talk instead about the dangers that guards face on the job. "Our officers are getting assaulted. Inmates throw feces, urine, semen and blood at our officers and nothing gets done about it," he said in our earlier conversation.

But while that's important (and Smith said Dart is, in fact, trying to combat that frustrating problem), so is honesty, particularly when taxpayers pay the price for patently phony episodic ailments. Research consistently shows absenteeism is higher in public-sector jobs than in private-sector jobs. And officials with unions that depend on popular support ought to help try to correct that situation rather than deny it exists.

Which brings us to the second problem with Cara Smith's idea: The Teamsters say it violates their collective-bargaining agreement.

In a grievance filed June 22, the union contends that "the employer unilaterally changing the medical call-in process and requiring officers to speak with their superintendent when they use medical time" is a violation of the section of their contract that forbids any non-negotiated changes in the "terms and conditions of employment."

The sheriff has "unilaterally trampled the officers' rights," Andrews said. Making them talk to their supervisors instead of just the county operator "is harassment," he said.

Even though, of course, just about every employee in the world has to talk to a boss or a colleague when calling in sick.

Smith said that due to the backlog of grievances it's likely that this complaint will simply be folded into negotiations for the next union contract. The current pact runs out in November 2017.

By that time, we'll know better whether Smith's idea has any power to cure fake illnesses.

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