Fresno County employees -- some in tears -- told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday about their illnesses and how they were affected by a new policy limiting the number of hours fellow workers can donate to them to extend their absences.
Supervisors listened to the employees during a public comment period before going into closed session to discuss employee contract issues, including donated leave time. The old policy allowed employees to receive unlimited leave time, but the new policy limits donations to 80 or 120 hours, depending on the bargaining unit.
Three weeks ago, supervisors approved the new limits -- effective April 28 -- that force county workers on extended disability leave to lose a portion of their county pay at the same time their health insurance costs triple. When they go on disability, their salaries drop by a third.
About 85% of the county's more than 6,000 employees are affected by the change. County officials say the policy was designed to stop abuse of donated leave time. They said one employee had been away from work under the unlimited sick time policy for three years; if the new policy had been in place for the past year, it would have saved taxpayers $620,000, they said.
Patrice Mack, a correctional officer for 24 years, learned in September she had breast cancer. She has since used 570 hours of her own accumulated leave time and had just started using donations from fellow employees when the new policy went into effect.
"Being diagnosed with cancer in September 2013 wasn't in my plans, nor was the slew of appointments, the lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation that I've just started," she told supervisors. "Nonetheless, I have been able to sustain myself on my own hours until April."
One concern raised by supervisors was the cost to the county of maintaining retirement fund payments when employees took extended absences and stayed on salary.
Employee Melinda Oliveri, suffering from stage four cancer, said she had no interest in future retirement payments.
"Take the retirement part, just let us have our health insurance," she said. "And let us have our donated hours that were so generously donated."
Oliveri, who works in the Department of Social Services, said she almost lost her health insurance earlier this month, just before a chemotherapy appointment.
She had three days to find $1,000 to pay for health insurance after she learned she was no longer able to use hours donated by co-workers and stay on the county's health insurance plan.
Sandra Medina, a 12-year employee in the county conservator's office, was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was using donated hours from fellow employees.
"I am having to cut my leave short to return to work next week," she said.
She asked supervisors to reconsider reinstating the donated leave program.
"Allow our friends and colleagues to donate on our behalf and continue with our recovery and hopefully get back to work as soon as we can and continue to be passionate about the work we do for this county," she said.
Her mother, Ardey Turner, said family members are suffering along with their loved ones.
"It's devastating ... when you see your kids suffer like this and you know they want to do the right thing, but can't," Turner said. "She (Medina) has people that are willing to help her and to be told summarily that that no longer applied, it was like somebody had hit her in the stomach."
Supervisors were advised not to comment because of pending closed session discussions, but board Chairman Andreas Borgeas told employees and their families that their "concerns are not unheard."
He said the board will consider a donated leave program for those with catastrophic illnesses.
"We will take, as a board, these issues seriously and proceed in the best interests of the county while being completely mindful of the medically needy individuals in our community that are part of the county family while still protecting the county system from any abuse," he said.
In other discussion:
Supervisors delayed action on a plan that would remove funding from the county's transportation program for a project to widen Highway 180 west. County officials said there wasn't enough money available for the $305 million project, but there is enough money for a $24 million project to widen Millerton Road between Friant and Sky Harbor roads. Supervisors will take the issue up again June 3.
Supervisors voted against polling residents on a spending plan supported by the city of Fresno to use road funds over the next 12 years for street maintenance instead of rail consolidation and new technology. The county's share is $21.3 million. All local governments will eventually get an opportunity to vote on the spending plan.
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