The following year, the union negotiated a one-time credit of 48 hours of compensatory time and a maximum four episodes of sick leave without a doctor’s note, up from three. The contract was also modified to allow fire personnel to hold second jobs while on disability leave. The outside employment must predate the injury and be judged as not hindering recovery.
The accumulation of leave means that the average firefighter is available for work about 78 percent of the time, the lowest level of any county department, according to a study of overtime and leave practices released in March by the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight.
Sick leave is a likely driver of overtime costs in the fire service and other county agencies. A section of the current firefighter contract describes examples of sick-leave abuse that could result in disciplinary action. They include “repeated use” of sick leave when requests for vacation or compensatory leave are denied. The contract also cites calling in sick before or after scheduled days off.
The agreement provides for sick-leave restrictions and written reprimands when firefighters are found to be abusing the system. During the 18-month period studied by the council staff, 13 firefighters had their sick leave restricted. None were formally reprimanded.
Leslie Adams, a former Montgomery deputy fire chief, said high rates of sick leave can be a red flag. “If there is excessive sick leave that will increase overtime,” said Adams, president of Public Safety Solutions, a consulting firm. He said he was not familiar with the details of Montgomery’s current situation, but described the abuse generally as, “ ‘Hey, I’ll call in sick so you can get a day of overtime.’ Management has to be cognizant of those things.”
The study recommended that county officials consider limits on overtime in pay periods where leave is taken. Sparks said the vacancies still have to be filled by someone, meaning that “the overtime cost will be incurred regardless of how many regular hours a particular employee has worked.”
One change that might roll back overtime is a different work schedule. The 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off system is a legacy of an era when travel times to the station house were lengthier and departments didn’t want to get caught shorthanded during shift changes.
Shorter shifts would require more personnel, but could pay off in the long term with lower overtime expenses. Experts say shorter shifts could also minimize accidents caused by fatigue and encourage firefighters to live closer to work.
But any discussion of changing shift arrangements is usually met with pushback. Firefighters have organized their lives around a system that calls for two long workdays per week. About 70 percent live outside the county, some as far away as West Virginia and central Pennsylvania. Many hold second jobs.
Sparks said the prospects of such a transition are remote.
“One thing I’ve learned in the fire service is that firefighters hate change.”