Overtime Issues May Force N.M. Brownouts

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Albuquerque's bravest are apparently also the sickest: Firefighters are calling in sick so often on weekends, the department's overtime budget is over almost $300,000. In just the past weekend, the Albuquerque Fire Department...


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. --

Albuquerque's bravest are apparently also the sickest: Firefighters are calling in sick so often on weekends, the department's overtime budget is over almost $300,000.

In just the past weekend, the Albuquerque Fire Department said 40 people called in sick, which well above average.

Officials said they sent out a memo last week about the excessive use of sick leave that has created overtime and what needs to be done to prevent this from getting out of control.

"I can't explain why there has been a surge or an increase of sick leave on the weekends," AFD Chief James Breen said.

In an internal memo sent out late last week, Breen broke down the numbers.

Since August, more than 20 percent of the staff is using excessive amounts of sick leave, mostly on the weekends causing the department to over spend its overtime budget.

"The worst case scenario would of course be brown outs. Brown outs are where selected units are placed out of service in order to balance the budget," Breen said.

Breen said that worst case scenario is preventable. AFD's fire union president said brown outs have contributed to deaths around the country and wants to avoid that from happening locally.

"The overtime budget has always been an issue for public safety in Albuquerque," Breen said. "We do not condone sick leave abuse at all. We take pride in our job and in our work."

To crack down on this problem, Breen said a plan is being put in place to increase enforcement of doctor's notes, let staff know where the department stands fiscally and how inappropriate use of sick leave affects budgeted overtime.

Also, calling on support divisions like AFD trainees and fire marshals to fill staffing holes when too many people call in sick is also another option, Breen said.

"The message here: This is manageable. We can do this," Breen said.

While expected pay raises for firefighters didn't happen this year, Breen said he does not believe the spike in sick leave was a labor effort plot.

The fire union says earlier this year they proposed $6 million in voluntary concessions that were ignored by the administration.

If this problem is not fixed in the 8 months remaining in the 2011 fiscal year, the fire department will be over $1.2 million in overtime.

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