Only at Fresno City Hall: A day off for simply showing up regularly to work

The FAX bus station at Manchester Center is one of the main hubs for the entire Fresno area transit system.
The FAX bus station at Manchester Center is one of the main hubs for the entire Fresno area transit system. Fresno Bee file

Imagine getting a day off just for showing up regularly for work. Sounds like something any employee working anywhere would love.

You can qualify for that perk if you work for the city of Fresno, specifically in one of several unions that have negotiated that benefit.

The Fresno City Council recently approved a new contract with transit drivers that includes an incentive time-off program. In a nutshell: If an employee works a set number of hours over six consecutive pay periods, he or she will get a half to full day off. The use of other leave, like sick time, does not count toward the work hours that are needed to earn the day off.

Why would the city need to even do this? Most people would be happy to simply have a job.

Apparently, that ethic was in shorter supply at City Hall a few years back. Councilman Luis Chavez said when the council was reviewing the proposed budget two years ago, members were surprised at the requests for more overtime by some departments. When asked why there was such a need for OT, city administrators said managers were having a hard time getting employees to show up for work. When workers failed to show as scheduled, other employees had to be called in on overtime.

The council directed administrators to seek a solution, and the incentive time-off program is the result. As far as Chavez and council colleague Garry Bredefeld know, Fresno is the only city in the San Joaquin Valley with such a benefit for city workers.

The FAX drivers are the latest union group to get the benefit. Office workers, electricians, other blue-collar employees and those in professional ranks also have the incentive.

Bredefeld is highly critical and was one of two council members to vote no on the bus contract. “It is the face of waste,” Bredefeld told The Bee. “We are all elected to be good stewards of the public’s dollar. We run on that, and then approve these kind of things.”

He estimated it will cost the city $1.5 million to cover the days off in total. Of that, $1 million would come from the general fund and the rest from what is called the enterprise fund — services that are covered by rates. The general fund portion would allow the city to hire up to 10 new police officers, or hire more firefighters, help fix parks, and replace antiquated equipment, Bredefeld said.

“This is fiscal insanity,” he said.

Chavez voted for the incentive for the FAX drivers in part because they have a hazardous job and need the day off. “These are individuals sitting on a bus for eight hours a day, who often deal with nasty people, and who are often verbally or physically attacked.”

He characterized the incentive pay as a pilot, and wants administrators to report back on whether the idea is truly bringing down the overtime cost. If not, Chavez said the incentive approach can be scrapped, and something else can be tried. “At the end of the day, we need to have an answer for the folks who don’t show up to work.”

In private enterprise, most oftenthat’s called getting fired. But apparently that’s not as easily done in public employment. The Bee earlier this year told of two Fresno State groundskeepers who got paid for doing work while they rested in their cars or went shopping. They were disciplined, but not terminated.

At a minimum, the incentive time-off program is not a good look for City Hall. There must surely be a better way to deal with problem staff than rewarding what is a basic responsibility of any employee — showing up to work.

The city also has itself in a bind when it comes to negotiations with other employee groups, who will similarly expect the time-off benefit.

The Bee thinks the incentive program is a questionable approach, but is willing to let the city see if cost savings truly result. Reporting back on that will be essential for credibility’s sake. The Bee calls on Bredefeld and Chavez to make certain that happens.