BERGEN COUNTY, NJ – The amount of sick time taken by Bergen County Police employees decreased by 34 percent over the past year after policies were put in place to curb abuses, officials said Thursday.
Brian Higgins, the county police chief, said he instituted new sick time policies with the consent of the local police union after reviewing the number of sick days taken over several years. He said he began that review prior to a November 2011 investigative report by The Record that detailed the amount of sick time taken by county police officers.
The changes were made several months later, at the start of February 2012, after discussions with officials of Local 49 of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, he said. They included issuing warnings to employees who appeared to be abusing the department’s sick time policy and a requirement for officers with minor injuries to work light-duty jobs, such as clerical filing, instead of staying home.
“This is something I identified early on,” said Higgins, who became chief in August 2011. “We recognized that sick time was pretty high.”
He said the changes led to a reduction of sick time by 4,789 hours over the course of 12 months starting in early February 2012 — about $234,000 in sick pay — when compared with the previous year, when sick time spiked at 14,240 hours.
Those numbers reflect sick time taken by the department’s 86 police officers and 48 civilian employees, Higgins said. Local and state PBA officials could not be reached Thursday evening.
The Record, in its 2011 report, found senior Bergen County Police officers had been taking excessive amounts of sick time, possibly because the amount of pay for unused sick time given to retiring officers had been capped at $25,000 by the 2001-04 collective bargaining agreement. Most departments don’t have such a cap.
Higgins said on Thursday that he believes the cap contributed to the problem. He also said it was easier to abuse the policy after the 2009 retirement of former chief John Schmidig because the department did not have a permanent police chief for two years.
“It was difficult for officers to give up that time,” Higgins said about the sick pay. “If you leave with all of your sick time [unused], you should thank God you never needed it.”
The Record’s report found that department officers took 21,574 hours of sick leave, or nearly 2,700 eight-hour shifts, over three years, and that 31 senior officers accounted for half of the sick leave taken in 2009. One lieutenant took an average of 72 days a year of sick leave over three years, and one sergeant averaged 49 days, the report found.
Higgins said the amount of sick leave taken by all of the department employees came to 9,451 hours over 12 months after the policy was changed.
He said employees who repeatedly called in sick on weekends or at the beginning and end of vacations were given warnings. A few, he said, were disciplined for continuing to call in sick.