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Lawmakers push for audit of correctional officers’ absences

Group of Hawaii lawmakers wants the state auditor to investigate alleged abuse of sick leave

By Cathy Bussewitz
Associated Press

HONOLULU — A group of Hawaii lawmakers wants the state auditor to investigate alleged abuse of sick leave by state corrections officers in response to repeated incidents when dozens of prison officers called in sick, leaving other officers working overtime to carry the load.

In one of the worst incidents, an officer died after going into cardiac arrest while manning a post alone on a day when 66 officers called in sick in 2013.

“The worst thing that can happen is for a staff person to die,” said Rep. Gregg Takayama, D-Pearl City. “There are extenuating medical circumstances, but … the lack of staff aggravated what was already a bad situation.”

The problem occurs most frequently on holidays and during major sporting events, and has led to frequent cancellations of visiting hours at prisons.

Takayama co-introduced a resolution in the House requesting an audit, and HCR 10 was passed by a Senate committee Monday.

The Department of Public Safety supported the resolution, saying it could use an external set of eyes to evaluate what’s going on. Corrections officers, like other state employees, are allowed 21 sick days per year. After exhausting their sick days, many officers take additional time off using the Family and Medical Leave Act, said spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.

About 1,000 of the approximately 1,300 corrections officers are approved for medical leave under that program, which allows for an additional 12 weeks of leave, she said.

“They’ll typically use up all of their sick time and they’ll start using family leave,” Schwartz said. “We do realize that some people who are out on leave are legitimately sick, and then there are some who abuse it.”

In response to the problem, the department began an attendance program that tracks how often an employee violates rules such as providing a doctor’s note for absences that last five or more days. Under the program, an employee can be terminated after three rule violations, Schwartz said. But after accruing violations, employees generally switch over to family leave, following the federal law which is more difficult for the state to enforce, she said.

Meanwhile, the department spent $37 million in overtime costs over the last five years.

“That’s staggering, isn’t it?” said Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons. “So when they say there’s no money, I’m the one in the audience going, ‘I know where the money is. It’s being spent in all the wrong places.’”

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