Board hears concerns over new worker policy

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Aldermen hope to soon make some final decisions on a new cityemployee handbook following a meeting Tuesday with representativesof the fire and police departments.

City officials have been working on a new handbook for severalyears. The current handbook was written in 1985, and a new one isneeded to account for changes in federal and state work laws.

“The old one is out of date,” said Mayor Bob Massengill.

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In handbook discussions, police and fire department employeeshave received added attention because those services must bestaffed and available at all times. Also, firefighters work in24-hour shifts, and those must be reconciled with handbook rulesthat typically address eight-hour work days.

“We can’t let everybody off at one time,” said Police Chief PapHenderson.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion centered around sick and funeralleave, vacation, holiday and other time off policies. Firefightersvoiced some concerns about how the new proposals would affectthem.

“The main thing we’re looking at is maintaining what we have andnot losing any of that,” said Fire Chief Paul Cartwright.

Firefighters work 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off duty.Cartwright said firefighters did not want to lose credit for aholiday if they are not working.

With the shift scheduling, parts of two shifts work on a holidayand receive partial compensation while a third shift does not andis not paid for any holiday work. Cartwright suggested all threeshifts receive eight hours pay.

“It would be fair to everyone,” Cartwright said.

Massengill, who had suggested a similar solution, said the boardcould consider and work on the proposal.

Henderson, the police department’s lone representative at themeeting, had concerns about holiday credit, but only from a senseof time off.

“We’re not asking for pay. We’re just asking for that day (off)later in the calender year,” Henderson said.

Tuesday’s discussion touched on differences in eight-hour and24-hour work schedules.

“This is part of the problem,” said City Attorney Joe Fernald.”They talk in shifts and we talk in hours…It’s always beenextremely difficult to compare it.”

City officials said shifting firefighters to eight-hour shiftswould require more personnel and more expense. With the current24-hour shifts, firefighters now work eight shifts and then take aninth off, known as a “kelly day,” to avoid the city having to payovertime.

“I believe it’s important to the firefighters and I believe it’simportant to the city of Brookhaven,” said Capt. Randy Sykes.

Sykes and Capt. Gary Beeson said the overtime hours forfirefighters working the ninth shift would be expensive. Beesonspeculated three new firefighters could be hired for the amount itwould cost in overtime pay.

However, Fernald said there had been changes in wage and hourlaws, and it was unclear whether kelly days could be allowed. Cityofficials agreed to continue the practice until further notice.

Also Tuesday, a suggestion to include aunts and uncles in thedefinition of immediate family received firefighter approval.

“I look at aunts and uncles (as family) more so than in-laws,”said Capt. Fred Smith.

Nieces and nephews were also mentioned.

“That’s close relatives,” said Ward Three Alderwoman MaryWilson.

Current and proposed handbook policies allow for up to threedays paid time off per occurrence for family illness or death andup to five days for employee illness.

While firefighters said a 48-hour policy would cost them, WardFive Alderman Tom Smith pointed out that five shifts off sick couldequal being away from work two weeks.

The discussion shifted to a request to allow unused sick leaveto be accrued and applied toward retirement.

“Other towns, it works for them,” Cartwright said.

Cartwright said that would be an incentive for employees to notcall in sick. The city currently has a use it or lose it policy onsick leave, but Alderman Smith alluded to the possibility ofemployees calling in sick when they’re really not.

“If you’re not sick, you’re not supposed to take it,” Smithsaid.

Wilson, though, defended the practice of employees making use ofthe sick leave instead of losing it.

“You can’t really blame them,” Wilson said.

Alderman at large Les Bumgarner said allowing sick leave to beaccrued would take tighter restrictions and documentation. However,he was optimistic that the policy would work.

“That can be done,” he said.

Cartwright said he appreciated the board’s efforts in developinga new city employee policy.

“We want a good handbook. We want something we can go by,” thechief said.