HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State prisons officials said they tried to crack down on sick leave abuse by corrections officers but were thwarted by a federal medical leave law for which 40 percent of guards statewide qualify.
During the first six months of this year, the day with the highest absentee rate at Oahu Community Correctional Center was New Year's Day, when 87 corrections officers called in sick, equal to 46 percent of those scheduled.
Super Bowl Sunday, February 3, saw 45 percent of the guards on the schedule calling in sick at OCCC. During the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament games during weekends in March, absentee rates at OCCC ranged from 30 to 35 percent.
"You can't launch an inquiry just 'cause some guy called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday?" Hawaii News Now reporter Keoki Kerr asked Ted Sakai, the state Public safety director.
"No, we have to have reason to believe they're abusing their sick leave," Sakai said.
Like all state employees, corrections officers have 21 sick days and another 21 vacation days each year.
And like other state workers, they don't have to bring in a doctor's note to verify their illness unless they've been out sick five days in a row.
"It's very difficult, because if they're out for one or two days, even up to four days, it's difficult for us to do anything," Sakai said.
In recent years, prisons officials tried to crack down on sick leave abuse. The administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle developed a program in conjunction with their union -- United Public Workers -- that Sakai said worked "fairly well."
It targeted prisons officers who used all 21 days of their sick leave in a year.
"Once they reached the zero sick leave, we put them on the program. They would be required to come to work. Otherwise, they would face progressively more serious consequences until after a while they would lose their jobs," Sakai said.
But since then, corrections officers started to assert their rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows employees who either are facing a serious health condition themselves or caring for an immediate family member with such an illness to take leave.
"The family leave act says if you're out because of this, we can't hold that against you so once they did that, we can't use that in our attendance program," Sakai said.
Sakai said about 40 percent of the corrections officers in the state -- 474 of them as of late June -- qualified for what's known as FMLA.
"Once they do that, they can take a lot of leave and we can't touch them," Sakai added.
It looks like lots of corrections officers have some serious medical problems while others appear to be gaming the system.
Hawaii News Now's story Monday night about the high rates of sick leave at OCCC generated a lot of comments on social media, such as HNN's Facebook page.
"Until you've worked and walked in our shoes and dealt with serious life threatening and high stress issues in the prison system, you have no right to judge why we choose to take a sick day to alleviate the stress that we go through on a daily basis," wrote Charlie Valiente Molina, who appeared to be a prison system employee.
Brandon Jay wrote, "Yes you have sick days, but calling in sick when you're not sick is lying and in reality you are technically stealing from your job."
"Wow that is horrible," said Jake Kunukau on HNN's Facebook page. "I would get fired for that kind of stuff."
Figures released by the Public Safety Department show about 23 percent of the guards who were supposed to be on duty called in sick June 15, the day a staffing shortage left an OCCC sergeant by himself in the main control center. The guard, 61-year-old Michael Makiya, suffered an apparent heart attack and died later that night at a hospital.
He was left alone at the key post – that controls cell doors, guns, ammunition and video surveillance at the prison – because a second guard posted with him was re-assigned to an OCCC prisoner module because of staff shortages.
Makiya was locked into the center for as long as a half hour while co-workers broke down two doors to get to him because the watch commander could not locate the key code to unlock the key and get into give him medical attention.
The day after Makiya died, 66 OCCC corrections officers, or 38 percent of those scheduled to work, called in sick.
"We can't follow every officer who's out sick and see what they're doing. We simply don't have the capability. It would take an enormous amount of resources for us to do that," Sakai said.
Sakai said high absenteeism at OCCC is one reason why the facility spends $2.6 million a year on overtime, an amount that actually decreased by more than $600,000 this year compared to the year before.
He attributed the drop in OT at the prison to "better management" and requiring managers to justify overtime.
"They can't just fill a post just because there's a body waiting or a post waiting to be filled or someone wants to work overtime, there has to be a good reason for it. It has to be a safety reason or a strong program reason," Sakai said.
But some OCCC employees said managers run shifts with dangerously low staffing levels, putting inmates, staff and the public at risk.