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12 Gary firefighters’ 1,106 missed shifts cost an estimated $923K to city
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12 Gary firefighters’ 1,106 missed shifts cost an estimated $923K to city

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Gary Fire Department

The city of Gary's newest fire station at Pittman Square is in the 4900 block of Pennsylvania Street. 

Since 2018, 12 Gary firefighters alone have collectively missed 1,106 shifts using paid sick time, a move that's forced city government to spend an estimated $923,800 in salaries and overtime. 

That’s according to a data analysis provided to The Times by Fire Chief Sean O’Donnell and city attorneys.

The Gary Fire Department’s business manager recently put together an analysis for the city and Common Council, showing how a handful of firefighters each tally dozens of sick days in a single calendar year, prompting use of overtime in many of those instances.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw the numbers in black and white. To see the continued pattern, it shows a lack of respect for your co-workers. You're putting co-workers in jeopardy," said Gary Councilman Ron Brewer, D-at large.

The department's challenges extend beyond alleged sick time misuses. Despite support from Mayor Jerome Prince's administration, the department still lacks manpower to keep all neighborhood stations open 24/7 and, like many departments across the country, struggles with attrition as aging firefighters retire.    

Year-to-date, the fire department has spent about $1.1 million in overtime, but is only budgeted $500,000 in 2021. O'Donnell said he hopes to hire more firefighters to make up the difference.

Legitimate sickness

The newly released 2018-20 snapshot shows how a small percentage of Gary’s 165 firefighters have clocked in significant amounts of paid sick time while still earning their annual salaries.

“They can turn in a doctor’s note, follow all the procedures, and we can’t question the legitimacy of the illness,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell made clear what these firefighters are doing is not illegal, but that there are, in fact, loopholes in the system that have allowed the problem to fester for years.

Part of the problem is a department policy that allows for 90-day occurrences.

“Let’s say I have an injury to my left shoulder. If my doctor agrees, he can give me that time off. Then, after that 90 days, I find my other shoulder starts to hurt, and I can get (more time off) with another doctor’s note,” O’Donnell said in offering a hypothetical scenario.

Firefighters work about 110 days out of the year through rotating shifts — with 24 hours on, 48 hours off — as is the case for most departments across the country. Only a handful, including the East Chicago Fire Department, work rotating, eight-hour shifts in the U.S.

1,106 shifts

Gary Firefighters Association Local 359 Union President James Powell said he believes certain firefighters are abusing the department’s sick policy. Fire department leaders declined to provide names of those who are among the worst offenders in using sick time, citing HIPAA privacy laws.

One firefighter with an annual salary of $49,946.40 has missed 126 shifts since 2018, redacted records show.

Data provided to The Times shows Individual A in the department’s first shift rotation, with a salary of $51,357, missed 112 days from January 2018 to September 2020.

On the same first rotation, Individual B, whose salary is $43,207.60, and Individual C, whose salary is $36,029.89, took 109 and 95 days off over that same time period, respectively.

Missed shifts were filled by using overtime about 70% of the time, O’Donnell said. In cases where overtime was not used, firefighters were strategically placed across the city to ensure coverage for Gary residents.

“It’s hard to track in real time, the way we move manpower around. But this is a good estimation of what’s going on,” O’Donnell said.

Powell said from the union’s perspective, they don’t want to see the sick time policy go away completely, but he does understand a need for change.

O’Donnell said he wants to make clear the fire department is supportive of giving sick time for legitimate injuries. It’s questionable, off-the-job injuries from the same group of firefighters they most worry about.

“The city doesn’t have a magic pot of money,” O’Donnell said.

Policy changes

Firefighters are allotted free four sick days with pay each year for minor illness without a doctor’s note, according to the Gary Fire Civil Service Commission's policy.

Repeat, excessive absenteeism for minor illness beyond the four days could result in additional disciplinary action before the Gary Fire Civil Service Commission, which oversees the department’s hiring, promotional and disciplinary procedures.

In cases of major illness or injury that requires more than two working days or more off, the employee must bring in a doctor’s note every two weeks, including detailed information about prognosis, physical restrictions, medications and an estimated return date, the policy states. 

The policy outlines disciplinary action to be taken for falsifying doctor’s notes, and in cases where a firefighter is found working a second job while out sick. But it does not define excessive absenteeism means in cases of major illness or injury, Assistant Chief Mark Everette said.

Everette hopes the Fire Civil Service Commission works with the department on crafting a policy that defines “excessive absenteeism” so firefighters who abuse the system can be disciplined.

Everette and O’Donnell said the fire commission won’t rule against a firefighter without "excessive" absenteeism being first clearly defined.

“Ten shifts, that’s excessive to me,” Everett said.

O'Donnell said he is creating a union/administration joint commission to study the issue and present ideas to the Commission by Oct. 31. 

The commission could adopt a new rule based on the recommendation, absent a new union contract, he continued.

Commission President Donald Williamson, a former fire chief in Gary, did not respond to a request for comment. Commission attorney Rinzer Williams III also did not respond.

An office secretary told The Times the fire commission declined comment.

Mike Gonzalez, city spokesman, commended the city’s firefighters, saying they work tirelessly day in and day out to protect Gary residents.

He said no one, besides a qualified doctor, can question the legitimacy of these firefighters’ illness or injury.

“But if you look at any profession and you see these kinds of numbers, they’re always going to raise eyebrows,” Gonzalez said.

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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