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A cure for Cook County's FMLA flu

Friday, November 10, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

A cure for Cook County's FMLA flu

The Cook County Jail at 26th Street and Sacramento Avenue in Chicago on Jan. 12, 2016.
Editorial Board
2:25 pm, November 10, 2017

On Mother’s Day 2016, correctional officer Alexander Perteete called in sick for his 3 p.m. shift at Cook County Jail, then went on Facebook and posted a link to an NBC5 report about everyone else at the jail calling in sick, too.

Soon after, he posted video from inside the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago and boasted that his mom was “hitting it big,” an internal sheriff’s investigation found.

Meanwhile, back at the jail: All three shifts were shorthanded, as more than 400 guards and supervisors were medical no-shows. The jail was on lockdown all day. Cook County taxpayers got stuck with more than $75,000 in overtime costs.

It was just another brazen jail sickout, brought to you by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. We’re not talking about extended FMLA time — to care for a new baby or undergo chemotherapy, for example — but the easily gamed intermittent FMLA, which allows workers to take short periods of unscheduled time off to deal with episodic ailments like asthma. Roughly 40 percent of Cook County’s jail employees have been certified for FMLA, and almost all of them have qualified for intermittent leave.

We’ve written many times about the spikes in absenteeism that coincide suspiciously with holidays, major sporting events and snowstorms. New Year’s Eve, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, the NCAA football championship game. ... Each time, most of those who called in sick claimed intermittent FMLA.

The most recent outbreak struck just before the overnight shift on Saturday, Nov. 4. The occasion? The end of daylight saving time. That 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift is nine hours long, and yes, jail employees get paid for all nine of them. But the thought of working an extra hour apparently brought on a lot of migraines: 144 of 389 called in sick, 82 of them under FMLA.

Let’s not pretend we don’t know what’s going on here. Jail employees clearly consider FMLA certification a license to call in sick at a whim. Their bosses can’t say no, can’t demand a doctor’s note, can’t ask a lot of questions. Busting employees for fraud is labor-intensive and expensive, especially when there are so many suspected cheaters — how do you check up when 82 people claim intermittent leave in a single day?

But enough’s enough. The FMLA flu has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime. The sickouts compromise the safety of inmates and the overburdened employees who work those shifts. Sheriff Tom Dart is cracking down.

A team of staffers from human resources and the Office of Professional Review has been assigned to look for patterns of absenteeism and investigate those that “don’t pass the smell test,” says Dart’s policy chief, Cara Smith. Those chronic Monday-and-Friday patients, for example, or the ones whose ailments always flare up when the Bears are playing. If a suspected abuser moonlights at another job, investigators can visit that workplace to compare notes. And social media feeds are surprisingly helpful, since the malingerers seem to think they’re untouchable. Oops.

On Wednesday, Dart asked the Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board to fire Perteete. Here’s what investigators found, according to the complaint:

From Jan. 1, 2016, to July 13, 2017, Perteete claimed intermittent FMLA leave 61 times: 12 on the day before or after his regular day off, twice tacked onto a vacation, 37 times on weekends and 10 other times. Similar patterns were found the 19 times he claimed regular sick leave.

On many of the days he called in sick, he worked at a second job.

A Facebook post showed he was in Miami from Dec. 29, 2016, to Jan. 3, 2017. Most of that was scheduled time off, but Perteete’s request for leave on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day had been denied. He called in sick those days, claiming intermittent FMLA.

He also called in sick from Cancun.

And he celebrated Mother’s Day at the casino after claiming FMLA.

We can only imagine the collective gasp that went up at Teamsters Local 700 headquarters when that complaint was filed. Pass the Pepto-Bismol. A lot of FMLA fakers are suddenly feeling genuinely queasy.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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