Washington, D.C., Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe ordered a sweeping, though temporary, change to the agency’s sick time policy. In an official memo obtained Thursday by the News4 I-Team, Ellerbe suspended the use of unannounced sick time through June 2 for any firefighter who isn’t first checked at the fire department’s in-house clinic or one of two D.C. hospital emergency rooms.
Ellerbe’s memo was issued amid concerns about widespread usage of sick time by firefighters during holiday weekends, a city official said. “The Department occasionally finds it necessary to temporarily suspend its Minor Illness Program in order to minimize the use of unscheduled leave around the holidays,” Ellerbe said in a statement to the News4 I-Team. “When our members are granted leave to spend time with families during the holidays, it’s important to maintain sufficient staffing to keep units in service and respond to all emergency calls.”
Ed Smith, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 36, said the union filed a formal grievance against the new sick time policy. Smith said such changes should only be enacted after official bargaining sessions between the city and union. Smith said any shortfall of staffers during holiday weekends is the result of overall agency personnel shortages, not sick calls.
A News4 I-Team investigation in 2013 uncovered staffing shortages and downgraded ambulance services during multiple holiday weekends in the prior months.
Under the changes, firefighters would have to report to the emergency room at either Washington Hospital Center or Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., for a health screening, in order to qualify for a sick day during overnights and weekends, when the city fire clinic is closed.
Smith said such a requirement is burdensome to firefighters and the hospitals. “It’s no secret here in town that the ERs are crowded, especially on weekends. Now you’ll have firefighters contributing to that overcrowding,” Smith said.
There are nearly 2,000 women and women who work for the DC Fire and EMS department. A News4 I-Team review of agency personnel records shows approximately 100 of those members live in either New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey, a lengthy drive from the city fire clinic and D.C. emergency rooms at which they’d be required to appear for a “sick day” screening.