EXCLUSIVE: OCCC guards called in sick in big numbers for New Years, Super Bowl

EXCLUSIVE: OCCC guards called in sick in big numbers for New Years, Super Bowl
Published: Aug. 6, 2013 at 9:44 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 7, 2013 at 1:55 PM HST
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Oahu Community Correctional Center
Oahu Community Correctional Center
Ted Sakai
Ted Sakai

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The three days when the highest numbers of corrections officers at Oahu Community Correctional Center called in sick during the first six months of the year coincided with a major holiday, a major sports game and a parade for a local football star, according to an investigation by Hawaii News Now.

The highest absentee rate of the year so far at OCCC happened New Year's Day. That's when 46 percent of the corrections officers at the prison called in sick, resulting in 64 guards working extra hours on overtime to cover absent co-workers' shifts.

"Any business, if you don't know how many people are going to come to work every day, it clearly makes it very difficult to operate, especially when you are running consistently at these levels," said Ted Sakai, the State Public Safety Director.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3, 82 or roughly 45 percent of OCCC's guards called in sick. As a result, 62 guards got overtime to cover those unfilled posts.

"I would like for these officers who don't come to work to think about the effect they're having, not only on us, not only on the facility, but also on their fellow correctional officers who do come to work and how difficult they're making it for them," Sakai added. "They're doing a disservice to the facility and to their colleagues."

Remember that day on April 27 when people held a parade in Hauula and Laie to celebrate Manti Te'o being drafted into the NFL? That's the same day when 36 percent of OCCC guards didn't show up for work.

"It is an interesting coincidence, isn't it?" asked Sakai.

So 53 of the guards had to be held over from other shifts or called in on their days off.

"We're going to tell you you can't go home.  I'm sorry.  We need you to work.  And a lot of people's lives get disrupted when absenteeism gets to this level," Sakai said.

Prisons officials said the percentage of guards calling sick on days with NCAA March Madness basketball tournament games ranged from 30 to 35 percent.

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.

Sakai said high absenteeism at OCCC is one reason why the facility spends $2.6 million a year on overtime.

"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 the situation is frustrating, because the corrections officers' contract does not require them to bring a doctor's note unless they are out five work days in a row.  Like all state employees, prisons corrections officers receive 21 sick days and 21 vacation days a year.

Every day the watch commanders have to decide who to hold over from the last shift or call in from a day off to fill posts of people who've called in sick.

Watch commanders at each prison make the case-by-case decisions about whether any special needs need to be filled that will require more staff.

"Is someone (an inmate) in the hospital?  I have to fill that hospital post.  Is someone on suicide watch? Then I have to make sure someone is watching that potentially suicidal inmate.  So these are difficult decisions that our commanders have to make three times a day every day," Sakai said.

Sakai said about 474 out of 1,200 corrections officers statewide have qualified for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows them to continue collecting salary and benefits while going on leave to take care of an immediate family member or themselves if they are afflicted with a serious medical problem.

The state had a program to track officers who use all their sick leave with escalating discipline for corrections officers who continue using their sick leave when they have none left, Sakai said.

But Sakai said the FMLA requires that employers not discipline employees for taking leave under the act.

"They can take a lot of leave and we can't touch them," Sakai said.

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