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Companies hire investigators to hunt down sick workers

January 10, 2011

Companies Hire Private Eyes to Investigate “Sick Days”
By Oregon Tax News

The weak job market has not prevented workers from abusing their sick days. Kronos, a workforce productivity firm in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, recently found that 57 percent of U.S. salaried employees take sick days when they are not actually sick. This number is almost up 20 percent from statistics gathered between 2006 and 2008. The surprising number of sick days led companies to hire private surveillance companies to check up on sick workers. Rick Raymond, an experienced private detective, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of workers who call in sick are not actually ill.

The law is on the employers’ side. In 2008, Raybestos Products, a car parts manufacturer in Crawfordsville, Indiana, hired an off-duty police officer to track an employee suspected of abusing her paid medical leave. When the officer produced substantial evidence that the employee was exploiting her benefits, the company fired the employee who then sued Raybestos. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit and held that although surveillance is not preferred employer behavior, it is not unlawful. This case established the precedent that “reasonable suspicion” is sufficient justification for employer investigation.

Frank M. Ahearn, a New York-based equal opportunity “privacy consultant” who has experience with helping employers keep track of their employees believes technology is partially to blame when analyzing the spike in sick day abuse. Ahearn described a client that invested in a GPS tracking system in employee cell phones. One employee outsmarted the system by FedExing his phone to the hotel where he was supposed to be staying on a business trip. In reality, the worker was on an exotic vacation.

In Haverhill, Massachusetts, the mayor determined that private investigation was necessary after his multiyear effort led by the city failed to reduce overused sick time. Mayor James J. Fiorentini elected to spend $13,000 on an investigation of the local Fire Department after discovering that about 20 percent of the roughly $8 million annual fire budget goes to overtime, for staff shifts of firefighters out sick or on vacation. The investigators caught four firefighters carrying furniture, shoveling snow, attending a hockey game, and doing other activities on sick days suggesting fitness to work. Employees in other departments cut sick leave by about 1,000 days from 2005 to 2008. However, firefighters called in sick an average of 12 days each last year, more than three times as often as Haverhill’s police officers. Fiorentini said that he hopes the investigation sends a clear message to everybody that the city is serious about monitoring and controlling sick time.

In New Jersey, lawmakers decided to attack sick day abuse by declaring that no retiree will be paid more than $15,000 for unused sick time saved up during one’s career. Lawmakers hope to end terminal leave, which is when employees save up their sick days and then use them all in the final year on the job. This allows employees to draw a paycheck while enjoying a retirement lifestyle. However, state and local officials are concerned that employees will still abuse their sick days. Therefore, many companies across the nation depend on private investigators rather than lawmakers to stop the abuse.

  
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