By Dwayne Orrick, Chief of Police, Cordele, Georgia
Sick leave is an essential benefit in the employee's compensation package. It allows an employee who cannot work due to sickness or accidental injury to continue receiving his or her salary uninterrupted. Although sick leave was originally designed as a privilege and not as an entitlement, over time this benefit has come to be expected in the fringe benefit program by police departments.
The majority of police employees use sick leave in the manner in which it is intended. Normal use of sick leave is considered in developing the department's budget and the department's manpower deployment and scheduling program. It is the abuse of sick leave by a few employees that creates problems for many departments. The few employees who use sick time in a manner that violates the agency's policy or collective bargaining agreement hurts the entire organization-its management, its other employees, and its service to the community.
Organization Impact: Abuse of sick leave reduces the effectiveness and efficiency of the department. The department is less effective because supervisors have to reassign duties of the absent employee to other staff. This results in less time being available to answer citizen calls for service or to focus on proactive and preventive duties.
Financial Impact: The unnecessary use of sick leave costs the department at least an additional 150 percent over the budgeted amount to cover the vacancies with overtime pay. To illustrate the financial impact of misused sick leave on the organization, multiply the total leave taken by the employee's hourly salary. When other officers were paid overtime to cover the missed work, factor in that overtime cost also. This total can provide a sobering realization of the cost for abusing sick leave.
Interpersonal Impact: Continued abuse can lead to interpersonal problems with the employees who have to cover the abuser's job responsibilities in addition to their own. Knowing that a person is abusing the sick leave and that no supervisory action is being taken can diminish employee moral.
Homeland security needs are not only stretching many departments' overtime budgets, but the additional work is also stretching the endurance of the officers. Like everyone, police officers enjoy their days off. Officers do expect to work holidays and reasonable overtime to cover assignments. The extra pay is well received. But there comes a point when even the extra pay is no longer considered a reward. Today with additional homeland security overtime on top of the expected and scheduled overtime, officers are working about all that can be expected. Add additional time to cover sick abusers' absences, and non-abusing officers are feeling the effects of being overworked. This will affect morale and cause interpersonal problems in the agency.
Ethical Impact: When employees repeatedly misrepresent themselves as being sick, it reflects on their integrity and diminishes the confidence fellow employees and supervisors have in their ability. Because of this, abuse of sick leave is also an ethical issue.
The Trouble Employee
The National Institute of Ethics has found abuse of sick leave can be a symptom of a trouble employee. The NIE found that some employees, driven by feelings of entitlement, justify their absence as being deserved because of perceived mistreatment by the organization. This willful violation of the department's policies is considered an administrative commission. That is, the employee knows the policy requirements but chooses to intentionally violate them anyway. If the employee's attitude is not replaced with a sense of accountability the conduct may continue to erode into even larger problems. Because of this, some departments have begun to consider making excessive sick leave usage an indicator in their early warning system.1
Establish Clear Policies
To effectively control unauthorized sick leave, a department must have a clear policy regulating leave, track each employee's use of sick leave, and take corrective actions when abuses occur.
Most agencies have a policy regulating sick leave. This policy should outline what constitutes acceptable leave, how time is accrued, the steps necessary for an employee to make a claim, and when a doctor's excuse may be required. In addition, some departments require employees to remain at their homes, except for travel to their physician, in order to be eligible for payment of leave.2 In some departments, verification of sick leave is done by a home visit by the supervisor. Also, many agencies require a written medical certificate if certain circumstances exist, including the supervisor's wishing to verify the absence.3
The policy should also include provisions for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. FMLA requires employers to "provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to 'eligible' employees for certain family and medical reasons."4 This may include caring for a child after birth, or placement for adoption or foster care; caring for the employee's spouse, son, daughter, or parent who has a serous health condition; or dealing with a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform their job.5
Finally, every employee in the department must be familiar with this policy and the possible penalties for noncompliance.
In order for an agency to effectively manage sick leave and ensure compliance with their policy, good records are essential. The information gathered from these records is critical to demonstrate a policy violation. Several off-the-shelf police scheduling software programs are available with leave-time tracking features.
At a minimum, the records system should track when the employee takes leave and the reasons for the absence. This system does not need to be elaborate to be able to collect this information. One easy way is for the supervisor to develop a table with the officer's names and blocks for the amount of leave taken during each of the preceding 12 months and the total for the year. This chart makes patterns of abuse easily recognizable.
Another technique to identify employees who may be abusing leave on a regular basis is to total the amount of leave taken by the entire unit. Identify the average amount by dividing the total sick leave taken by the number of employees in the unit. Then a determination must be made of the level that the organization considers to be excessive, such as 25 percent above average. Assuming 25 percent is chosen as the threshold overage for review, the average is then multiplied by 1.25. Any person who has used more than the established threshold should have their leave use reviewed for policy compliance.
Patterns of Abuse
With the policy in place that establishes the standards of conduct and a records system that measures usage, supervisors can easily watch for compliance. Realistically, an agency cannot expect to stop every isolated instance of abuse. Rather, supervisors should routinely look for patterns of abuse. These patterns can evolve in many ways. For example, the offending employee may routinely take leave in conjunction with regular days off, vacation, or holidays. Some will call in sick in response to having their vacation requests denied. Others' sick days may coincide with their spouse's off-days. A more difficult pattern to track is when an officer takes off during a specific time each year.
One of the more obvious patterns is for the employee to use their leave as soon as it is accumulated. In these instances, employees with an extensive length of service, such as 10 years, will have accumulated only a few days of leave.
It should be noted, it is not necessary for the employee to establish to a pattern of abuse before corrective action can be taken. Rumors of an officer taking sick leave for unapproved purposes should be investigated.
Enforcing leave policies requires discretion and good judgment on the part of the supervisor. Once a problem has been identified, it is incumbent upon the supervisor to meet with the employee to discuss the reason for the absences. During this meeting, the goal is to have the employee to change their behavior. This will not occur unless the employee assumes responsibility for his or her conduct. During the session, the supervisor should explain that the purpose of the meeting is to discuss the use of sick leave, the problem or pattern that has been identified, and the impact of the behavior on the organization.
Sometimes, the subordinate may have a legitimate explanation that was not previously known and no further action is needed. In other instances, the employee's problems may exceed the supervisor's ability to address them. In these cases, the supervisor should recognize his or her limitations and refer the employee to the department's employee assistance program.
The most successful corrective action plans occur when the subordinate takes part in developing the solution. In some cases, the supervisor may need to guide the officer through the process of exploring their alternatives. Before the meeting is concluded, the supervisor should write a corrective action plan outlining the problem, what the employee is going to do to reduce the use of leave, and adverse administrative action to be taken for noncompliance.6
Disciplinary procedures vary from one community to the next and depend upon governing laws and collective bargaining agreements. However, most realize the need for progressive discipline. Many agencies require officers who continue their abusive behaviors to provide a doctor's statement for a specific time (that is, six months) to verify all claims of sickness.
Incentives to Combat Abuse
Too often organizations focus enormous amounts of energy and resources trying to control a few poor performers and fail to reward their exemplary employees. It is interesting to note the different approach between the private and public sectors in providing leave to employees. In the private sector there is a growing trend to stop distinguishing between types of leave and provide an established amount of leave each year. The employee can use the time for any reason they desire.
In the public sector, the trend has been to keep the different types of leave. As such, in an effort to reward loyal employees for not taking leave unnecessarily, many communities have developed incentive programs. Although compensation practices vary widely across the country, incentive programs serve to reduce leave use and in the long run save money for the community.
In some agencies, employees are allowed to accrue sick leave to an established level. The department provides the employee with a cash payment for a percentage of all unused sick leave above a base rate at the end of the year. In many communities, the reimbursement coincides with the holiday season and serves as a nice bonus.
Other communities take a long-term perspective and reward longevity by allowing employees to accrue a specific amount of leave. Any leave earned beyond this limit is forfeited and credited toward years of service upon retirement.
A few departments allow officers to accrue unlimited amounts of sick leave throughout their career and pay the officer for a percentage of the unused leave, up to a specified dollar amount. This serves as a substantial bonus upon retirement.
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive, but it does illustrate the wide variation of incentive programs. Also, these incentives are not without problems. For example, officers who are paid out at a lesser rate may "burn the time" they have over the set amount before retirement. This would represent a budget problem and a staffing problem also.
Sick leave is an essential part of the employee compensation package. However, efforts must be taken to ensure that some employees do not abuse this privilege to the detriment of the organization and fellow employees. These efforts should include a fair but firm policy that is communicated to all employees. The use of leave should be monitored for patterns of abuse. When abuse is determined to have occurred, the leave is denied and corrective action is taken.
Officials should work with the governing authority to support an incentive plan rewarding employees for using leave in accordance with the department's policy. These actions will serve to ensure high morale and efficient operations in the department.
1 National Institute of Ethics, "The National Law Enforcement Officer Disciplinary Research Project," by Neal Trautman, 1997.
2 For a legal discussion, see Mary Claire McNaught and Daniel L. Schofield, "Managing Sick and Injured Employees," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 1998.
3 The medical certificate is a written statement signed by a registered practicing physician certifying the period of disability of the patient while under professional care. These forms are usually readily available in doctor's offices. The medical certificate is helpful when the employee has been hospitalized and serves as notice that the employee can return to work. Other circumstances can include when an employee has been absent for consecutive days (usually three); when the employee may have a contagious disease; or when the absence needs verification.
4 U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Standards Administration, Wage and Hour Division, WH Publication 1420, June 1993.
Can It Work?
The Ottawa, Ontario, Police Service received the 2003 Webber Seavey Award for its Attendance Enhancement Program (AEP). The department created the program to reverse a continuous increase in the use of sick leave over a five-year period.
The AEP represents a multifaceted approach to prevent, minimize, and control the risk of economic and human resource loss due to absenteeism. The program's primary objective was to improve officer attendance, as well as raise awareness about attendance issues. In 2000 the cost to the department of use of sick leave equaled the expense of 57 full-time employees.
To kick off the AEP in 2001, the police service launched two high-profile pilot initiatives. One involved offering officers monetary rewards or recognition or both for demonstrating perfect or strong attendance. The other focused on arming supervisory staff with the information, procedures, and tools they needed to monitor officer attendance. After minor modifications, the pilot initiatives officially became part of the program.
Year-end 2002 results confirmed that the program was a success. Specifically, the use of sick leave dropped by 1.6 days per employee, 740 officers and staff had perfect or strong attendance, approximately 2,500 days of productive work were gained for the year-equivalent to adding nine full-time employees to the workforce-and $540,000 in increased productivity was realized along with a significant decrease in expenses related to the disbursement of sick leave benefits.
The Webber Seavey Award for Quality in Law Enforcement presented by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Motorola.