Fresno County workers lose lengthy sick time donations

The Fresno BeeMay 16, 2014 

When Fresno County juvenile corrections officer Roland Muniz learned he had testicular cancer, fellow workers donated vacation and sick time that he could use for medical leave during four rounds of chemotherapy.

But most of that leave was wiped out under a new county policy.

Now Muniz is facing the effects of his illness and chemotherapy treatments while his salary drops and higher insurance rates kick in.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted to begin limiting sick time donations effective April 28, the first day of Muniz's chemotherapy.

The previous policy allowed unlimited sick time donations among employees, but county officials worried about abuse that would wind up costing the county. The new limits are expected to save the county money.

Previously, an employee could receive unlimited donations of sick time. Now, that will be limited to 80 hours or 120 hours per year, depending on an employee's bargaining unit. A donor can only offer a maximum of 40 hours per year.

The new policy affects 85% of the county workforce. Some bargaining units have yet to agree to the rules.

Under the old policy, the county was paying full salaries to those on leave, as well as pension contributions and its share of health insurance.

This year, the county has paid $1.5 million in leave-time donations, but if the new limits had been in place, costs would have been $912,775, which would have saved about $620,000, said Beth Bandy, county director of personnel resources.

Bandy said the county has $33 million in unfunded leave on its books.

The new rules, Bandy said, control the program by limiting the time an employee can use. If more time is needed, she said state disability insurance can pay employees about two-thirds of their salaries.

Many employees can draw from 240 hours or more of total annual leave -- sick time and vacation combined. Employees are expected to bank some of the time, county officials say.

"I believe there is significant abuse in the program," Bandy told the supervisors last month. "We have people that have joint pain to asthma to allergies to stress to cancer. ... The smaller portion are the ones with the serious health conditions."

But Barry Bennett, a Fresno labor lawyer who represents one county employee bargaining unit, said the new policy is "cruel and bizarre."

For people like Muniz, he said, "the treatment is beyond dispute, it's required. So, if someone wants to donate their own hours to help these people who would have to go out on leave without pay or disability, then why not allow it?"

Bennett said capping the amount employees can receive is understandable, but not an amount fellow workers can donate. He suggests a year as a reasonable donated time cap -- not two or three weeks -- especially for seriously ill employees.

In the case of a person out for three years, Bennett said, the county has termination procedures.

"If there is no anticipated date of return and the service has to be provided, the employer doesn't have to keep him on," Bennett said. "The employer has a right to make sure that services are provided."

But one person in a payroll of 6,000 to 7,000 doesn't justify a policy that could affect so many others, Bennett said.

"There are costs associated with it, but isn't there a value in sticking up for your employees who are in a situation not of their own making?" Bennett asked.

Worried patient

Muniz's first day off was April 1 so he could prepare for surgery two days later.

Last year, Muniz, 32, used a month of Family Medical Leave Act time for an extended absence. Under the act, an employee can have three months off a year. Muniz had two months left and 50 hours of personal time remaining when he got his cancer diagnosis.

"I wish I would have had more (leave time)," he said. "Nobody knows when you're going to get cancer."

His doctor told him to take six months off from work for chemotherapy and cancer recovery. Muniz was planning to take five months off.

The 400 hours of donated sick time from fellow workers was expected to carry into August when he could complete chemotherapy and be healthy enough to return to work, he said, but under the new rules Muniz needs to return to work next week, which he is physically unable to do. He starts his second round of chemotherapy Monday.

He can get state disability, but did not buy a long-term disability policy through the county. The policy requires a buyer be in good health for a year before using it, and workers receive about two-thirds of their salary.

Following his first round of chemotherapy, Muniz said he was "nauseous, fatigued and irritable." He said he stayed in bed much of the week.

"Sometimes it was hard just to drink water," he said.

The day after supervisors voted, Muniz was called by a personnel manager in his department and told the sick time his co-workers donated was no longer available to extend his absence. He also would have to pay COBRA insurance rates that are almost 31/2 times the $300 monthly cost he paid through work. COBRA is a health insurance program that extends the employer health plan when a worker is not on the job.

"I did what I could to help myself out," said Muniz, a married father of two young children. "I have cancer and now I have to fight this, too."

(On Thursday, Covered California, the state-run health exchange, announced a new enrollment period for people who use COBRA to switch to a less costly exchange plan. The two-month window ends July 15.)

Union reaction

Union officials said the new time limits were imposed by management and affect about 4,700 SEIU workers.

Latisha James, a union organizer, said one woman battling cancer asked her advice after the policy change: "Should she pay her COBRA insurance or her mortgage?"

Last month, board members heard from a third employee who faced losing donated time after her second cancer diagnosis in a year. She is worried she may have to delay additional procedures because she doesn't have enough time banked.

Through her initial cancer procedures, Mary Lou Hinojosa, 41, told supervisors that the donated hours gave her peace of mind.

She still needs two surgeries and was hoping to keep hours donated by co-workers on the books.

"One of the only reliefs I did have was knowing that I had the donated hours that so many people blessed me with," she said. "Had I not had the hours to cover my income ... I would have had a financial crisis to deal with as well."

Stopping abuse

Despite Hinojosa's pleas, the rules were changed when supervisors voted 4-1 to limit time donations.

Supervisor Judy Case McNairy brought up the worker with a chronic illness and who hasn't worked for three years. By using donated sick time, she said, the employee stayed on full salary and accumulated 3% more each year in county retirement.

"We continue to pay for health care and we have a vacant position where we are not providing the public service," Case McNairy said.

Fewer than 20 workers have been off for an extended period -- all less than a year -- using donated time, county officials say.

"There are some very sad stories of people who get sick," Case McNairy said. "But the county's responsibility is to provide service to the public."

Both Case McNairy and Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said they are willing to consider a program for catastrophically ill employees.

But Borgeas said time donations are turning leave time into a traded commodity, especially for those who abuse the practice.

He said the county should refine its policy and develop "a more rigorous process for people to be eligible."

"There are people who are legitimately in need and those who have demonstrated they are abusing the system," Borgeas said.

Other counties have catastrophic illness policies. Among them, Tulare County has a one-year limit for leave time donations, while Madera County has a two-month limit on donations.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea said the number of employees using significant time donations is small. He said abusers can be reined in by alert managers, not by severe limits.

Perea said the county pays for time off because employees with large banks of hours were cashing out when they retired or went to work elsewhere. Donations lowered the number of cash-out hours while allowing workers to aid each other in a time of need.

"We have to pay attention to a speaker who comes up and gives us a real-life situation because we have to apply our decision making to her life," he said. "The message we send to our employees is that we don't care in your time of greatest need and illness."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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