251 prison guards called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday

251 prison guards called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday
Published: Mar. 3, 2015 at 10:16 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2015 at 10:31 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly half of the corrections officers at four prisons across the state called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday this year, a problem a key lawmaker called "disturbing," prompting him to call for prison sick leave audit. All told, 251 guards at eight prisons called in sick on the day when families and friends gathered at parties statewide to watch the final football game of the pro season.

Records show on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1, roughly 47 percent of the guards at prisons at Waiawa Correctional Facility and Maui Community Correctional Center called in sick. At the Women's Community Correctional Center, 45 percent of the guards called in sick that day, and the sick rate was 42 percent at Halawa prison.

"Any time you have almost half the staff of a facility calling in sick on Super Bowl, it has to be a cause for concern," said State Rep. Gregg Takayama, who chairs the state House public safety committee.

The sick rate at Oahu Community Correctional Center on Super Bowl Sunday was 35 percent, when 60 corrections officers had to be held over or brought in on overtime to fill in for those who called in sick, a prisons spokeswoman said.

When Hawaii News Now asked state Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda if those numbers are acceptable, he said, "No, not at all. We can always use improvement."

Espinda said the state's "attendance program" for suspected sick leave abusers has resulted in prison guards losing their jobs in the last year or so.

"We will continue to take steps within the contract while always observing people's rights to take off when they do need to," Espinda said.

Some prison guards clearly enjoyed Super Bowl parties a bit too much, since the numbers also showed about a quarter of them called in sick the Monday after the big game at prisons at Waiawa (26 percent), Maui (26 percent), Kulani Correctional Facility (25 percent) and OCCC (24 percent).

Prisons officials were not able to provide an estimated average percentage of sick calls on a normal working day.  But figures they provided for the day before the Super Bowl, Saturday Jan. 31., showed a range of 12 percent to 22 percent of the guards at eight prisons called in sick that day.  On Super Bowl Sunday, the average percentage of guards calling in sick ranged from 16 to 47 percent.

Takayama is calling for an audit of prison sick leave.

"I think this audit will give us the basis for determining whether it's just a few people who are gaming the system or if it's symptomatic of the need for some kind of revision of our sick leave policies," Takayama said.

Prison managers have complained that the correction officers' contract does not require them to bring a doctor's note unless they call in sick five days in a row.

"It's in just about every public workers' contract," Espinda said. "So I don't see that as being easily negotiated away. It was a long hard-fought-for right that the employees take."

Like other state employees, corrections officers get 21 sick days and 21 vacation days a year. But more than half of the state's roughly 1,300 prison guards also have qualified for the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows employees up to 60 unpaid days off to deal with their own medical conditions or to care for sick members of their family.

"We ought to be able to take action against those we know are gaming the system. But unfortunately, in many cases, our hands are tied," Takayama said.

Espinda, who faces a State Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, said, "The anticipation, planning and preparation we made for this past Super Bowl Sunday made the data what it was. If existing practices were left in place and no one paid particular attention to the issue, and the expectation of the day, the levels may have been even higher."

Espinda said before prison watch commanders made daily decisions about staffing and overtime to cover shortages. Now, Espinda said chiefs of security and wardens at each facility are now involved in deciding how to juggle staff and fill vacancies.

"Maybe too long in times past, line-level supervisors were making decisions that should have been made at higher levels who have more authority and more resources to throw towards the problem," Espinda said.

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