ATHENS, Ala. (WHNT) - A sick-leave policy that has been a thorn in the side of some Athens city officials is set to be revised by City Council members.
Council members have discussed and voted on revising the sick-leave section of the city's personnel policy and procedures manual.
The proposed changes include specifying that a sick day is an 8-hour day for all employees but firefighters, whose sick day would be 11 hours due to their long shifts. The proposed policy would also cap the number of total regular sick leave at 1,040 hours per employee.
"They are here for a full 24 hours," explains Athens Fire Chief Tony Kirk, "which means that for one-third of their life, they're living right here at the fire station."
The changes were proposed, in part, after Mayor Ronnie Marks learned after taking office that some employees had accrued years of sick leave, including one former firefighter who he says had accrued 4.5 years of sick leave, which had to be paid out upon his retirement. Marks said in the past that the policy should have been revised years ago.
"I don't want 10 or 20 years from now for our city being in the position where you have to cut retirement benefits," says Marks.
"In the council's defense," admits Kirk, "the fire department is the only department that was getting more than 8 hours." Kirk says in 27 years he himself has accrued more than 5,000 hours of sick leave. He says he realizes so much accrued leave affects the retirement system and bond ratings, but also said the city employee package for firefighters was so good it consistently boosted recruitment and retention; he worries that may now change per the policy resolution.
"If we can't standup for fairness then we don't need to be here," says Mayor Marks who points out the council is not being punitive toward any particular department.
But is the compromise fair after all?
"In the long run, yes," says fire chief Kirk, "Right now it doesn't feel fair because the guys are getting less sick leave."
But Marks says this is a positive step all in the spirit of conservative government for the tax payers of Athens/Limestone County. He says it's all about doing more with less.
"Yes, it has impacted our fire department more than others but there is a reason for that. It was an issue that you can't continue to have unlimited sick leave when you're gaining it at 3 times more what other employees are."
The proposed new policy, set to take effect December 1, 2013, says all classified, unclassified and probationary employees would earn sick leave at the rate of one “8-hour” day for every full month worked for a total of 12 days or 96 hours per year. This changes the existing policy, which gave employees a day but did not specify an 8-hour day and made an exception for firefighters. Firefighters, many of whom work 24-hour shifts, had been earning a 24-hour day of sick leave in some cases rather than an 8-hour day of sick leave.