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Sheriff office on the mend?

Two other county branches used more sick leave last year

“We’re No. 3! We’re No. 3!” Employees at the Multnomah County sheriff’s office may not be chanting that, but they could. Thanks to media coverage and various outside reports, Sheriff Bernie Giusto’s employees have become accustomed to being the poster children for sick-leave abuse by Portland-area public employees. A recent report released internally by the county, however, found that in fiscal year 2007 the sheriff’s office dropped to third place in sick-leave usage, averaging about 94 hours per employee as compared with the Department of Community Justice’s average of nearly 97 hours. The Department of County Human Services climbed into second place, at 95 hours per employee. So does the new report mean that the sheriff’s office has shrugged off its sick-leave problems — or that the rest of the county shares those problems? That’s what county officials hope to answer over the coming years. “There’s different ways to interpret anything,” county spokesman Shawn Cunningham said, noting that management philosophies, labor contracts, and individual employees’ behavior and health all play a role in sick-leave use. Carla Gonzales, the human resources manager who prepared the report, declined to speculate on whether the sick-leave use indicates a problem. “I think the numbers speak for themselves, which is why we put the data sets out there,” she said. “We run these reports to provoke a conversation.” The county average of sick-leave usage was about 87 hours per employee in fiscal 2007, down about 10 hours from the year before. In comparison, a report by Seattle’s King County government found an average of approximately 81 hours of sick-leave use per employee in 2006. But Giusto’s chief of staff, Christine Kirk, was pleased at the news that her agency uses less sick time per employee than the DCJ and the human services department, and not much more than several other agencies. “We’re just a face in the crowd,” she said. Scott Taylor, the county’s community justice director, was not overjoyed by the news, saying, “I never like to be No. 1 in this area.” He added that he and his staff have been breaking down the patterns of sick-leave use and have not seen warning signs of sick-leave abuse — such as patterns of sick days occurring consecutively with weekends or vacations. Taylor said his agency has “some heart attacks, some cancer” driving up its stats, and that he plans to adopt a system of sick-time tracking recently developed by the sheriff’s office. Sick-leave abuse by the sheriff’s office was a prominent argument by county Chairman Ted Wheeler in his earlier bid, since dropped, to take control of it. Asked for his reaction to the most recent numbers, his spokesman said Wheeler was too busy to comment. Between 2006 and 2007, every county agency showed a reduction in sick-leave usage, with the exception of the county human services department. DCHS director Joanne Fuller did not respond to a request for comment on the latest report. Jennifer Ott, human relations director at the sheriff’s office, said her agency has been tracking apparent sick-leave abuse and “counseling” potential abusers — which under the agency’s workplace rules is a necessary prelude to possible discipline. She said the agency recently issued its first sick-time abuse discipline, an oral reprimand. Deputy District Attorney Chuck French worked with the most recent corrections grand jury, which blasted Giusto in December for waiting years before tackling the sick-leave problem. French agreed that the newest numbers reflect improved management. “There’s been a real effort at the sheriff’s office to get this under control,” he said. The biggest user of sick leave among the sheriff’s employees are the jail deputies. However, the latest report shows they use significantly less sick time than their counterparts who oversee juvenile offenders at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Facility. The juvenile custody workers averaged 116 hours of sick leave in 2007 compared to 97 hours for the average jail deputy. Darcy Bjork, an official with the Multnomah County Corrections Deputies Association, said he is not surprised at the report’s findings. He attributed the drop in sick time among his members in part to a change in the deputies’ contract ensuring that sick time is not counted in the 40 hours of work required before a deputy can earn overtime in a given week. He also said public scrutiny played a part. “People have made a concerted effort to try and change (sick-leave patterns) because this has become such a hot issue,” he said. Bryan Lally, staff representative for AFSCME Local 88, represents about 60 juvenile custody services specialists who work at the DCJ’s Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Facility. He said he had not seen the latest report but knows “there have been a number of sick-leave issues throughout the county.” Lally said that the county’s juvenile workers are an aging work force exposed to a lot of runaways who are carrying airborne pathogens — and who occasionally get violent. “In the four years I’ve represented them I’ve had a number of people be assaulted and have to go the hospital,” he said. He said that his union has been working with the county to agree on building incentives into their contract to drive down sick-leave usage. “A lot of it is policy changes,” he said. 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