When the workday began Nov. 18, 10 employees called in sick to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s automated phone line.
By midday, four more employees went home sick.
And by the final two hours of the workday, another 11 workers were gone.
That’s 25 people out sick by the end of the day. Sixteen percent of the BMHA workforce.
Laborers. Housing aides. Complaint clerks. And general mechanics among them.
A flu? Strep? A late afternoon doctor’s appointment?
But the absenteeism occurred on the Friday before the start of deer hunting season the next day.
A Buffalo News analysis of a year of sick time at the financially struggling housing agency found spikes on Fridays and Mondays, particularly the Mondays after a big Sunday football game.
Also popular sick days were workdays before – or after – a holiday, like the Fourth of July or Presidents Day, especially when it was snowing. And the Friday before hunting season begins.
What’s more, the number of employees taking sick time on any given day often grows as the day wears on, like on Nov. 18, 2016.
The Buffalo News analysis is based on sick-time records from Jan. 1, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2016, obtained from the BMHA under the Freedom of Information Law.
The analysis shows housing agency workers call in sick at a higher rate than workers for the City of Buffalo.
Almost a quarter of the agency's approximately 160 employees took off sick 25 or more times during 2016, the records show. About half their calls were for a full day off sick. The rest were for a partial day, often two hours at a time, the analysis found. Add it all up, and these 38 employees each called in sick an average of four full work weeks during 2016.
The analysis also found:
- On a typical weekday, 11 employees – almost 7 percent of the agency’s workforce – called in sick for all or part of the day. Actual sick time could be higher because a dozen and a half employees who resigned or retired during 2016 were not included in the sick-time report the housing authority provided.
- The number of sick calls jumped into the high teens and the low- to mid-20s on more than two dozen dates from January through December 2016.
- In the first two months of this year, the number of sick calls was in the high teens or low 20s seven more times, indicating the trend was continuing.
- About 55 percent of housing agency workers who called in sick last year took the whole day off, accounting for almost 80 percent of sick-time hours used in 2016. The other 45 percent went home sick for part of the day, mostly in two or four- hour increments, as permitted under their union contracts.
- Agency employees on average called in sick 17 times each in 2016, although that was the equivalent of 12 or 13 full sick days because so many workers take two or four hours at a time.
- Housing agency employees, on average, used 98.5 hours of sick time for the year, which was 15 percent higher than the average for Buffalo city government workers.
- About a dozen employees, including the housing agency's two top managers, didn’t take any sick time in 2016.
All this sick time occurred while the BMHA struggles to maintain its 27 developments, which house some 10,000 people. And tenants say routine maintenance as well as larger repairs are often delayed.
BMHA officials said the agency has clear sick-time rules that employees are expected to follow, and that suspected sick-time abuse is investigated but can be difficult to prove.
"We try to ensure people aren't abusing sick time, but it's a challenge," said BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett. "If someone says they are sick and follows the procedures, they are entitled to use sick time."
Sean Carney, president of Local 264 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents most BMHA employees, did not return calls for comment.
Sick-time is increasingly challenging for the housing agency, which has slashed its staff by 40 percent over the decade as it has sought to trim spending. The agency had about 100 more employees a decade ago, payroll records show.
These staff reductions have led to complaints from residents about maintenance and repairs.
“Service is not as good as it once was. You don’t have the kind of staff you had 10 years ago,” said BMHA tenant commissioner Leonard Williams, who blamed federal budget cuts for staffing reductions.
“Lights go out in buildings. Elevators break down. When it rains hard, water backs up in basements and backs up into people’s sinks and shower tubs,” Williams said.
At one time, staff was available to answer calls 24 hours a day, on three separate shifts, Williams said. The maintenance staff now is down to one eight-hour shift a day, he said.
“Everyone knows it’s a problem,” said Williams, who has served three terms on the BMHA board over the past 12 years.
“If a toilet backs up at 1 p.m., you could call and get someone to address the problem. At 6 p.m., no one is there to address the problem. You can call it in, and if it is not an emergency, you have to wait until 9 a.m. the next day," he said.
The situation gets worse when sick time is high, Williams said. “It means other laborers are going to have to step up and cover the shortage, or the work doesn’t get done. Residents complain that they call in work orders, and no one addresses it,” he said.
What the contract says
Under BMHA union contracts, most employees get up to 13 to 15 sick days a year. Most employees also are allowed to accumulate up to 180 or 300 days of sick time, depending on their hire date. Most employees are allowed to take sick time in two-hour increments.
The contracts allow the agency to request a doctor’s note when an employee is absent five consecutive days.
Upon retirement, a portion of unused sick time, the equivalent of up to 50 or 60 days, can be cashed in, according to contracts.
Employees report sick in the morning by calling an automated number, and later in the day to their supervisor as well as the automated system.
The agency for years has had a problem with some workers using sick time as personal days, according to Williams, even though most employees get five personal days, four to five weeks of vacation and 13 paid holidays.
“I think there is an attitude that sick time is personal time, that they are entitled to take it whether they are truly sick or not,” Williams said.
He suggested the agency review the union contracts to see if there’s a way to reduce sick time, although he offered no specific proposal.
Five current and former housing agency workers who spoke with The News – on condition they not be identified because of fear of retribution – expressed frustration over agency management and operations.
The sick-time levels are partly a reflection of low morale and a staff split between those who don’t feel any obligation to get a job done and those who feel they are overworked and not getting needed support from management, according to these employees.
“They are sick all right. They are sick of the administration,” one worker said of some of his union colleagues.
The five men interviewed separately by The News included two current and three former workers with combined experience of more than 90 years at the housing authority. Two are white-collar workers and three blue-collar, including one blue-collar supervisor.
“I left because of the way things are, the way the administration treats you,” one retiree said. “I use to love working. But with this administration, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
The current and former employees spoke of people using accumulated sick days in the months leading up to their retirement, and others adding a day – or perhaps a partial day – at the beginning or end of vacation or a holiday weekend.
Using sick time in two-hour increments enables employees to attend a medical appointment, physical therapy session or help with a sick family member without using a full sick day, one worker said. But the others interviewed said some workers take two hours of sick time at the end of the day if they don’t want to do some additional work assigned to them.
“If you have a bad day, or if management aggravates you, people will say, ‘I’m out of here,’ one of the current employees said.
“With the staff cuts, they want people to do what five people used to do,” one retiree said. “People are exhausted. They’ll just take off.”
“The stress makes people physically ill,” another current employee said.
“If people were treated right,” one retiree added, “they wouldn’t mind doing the job.”
The employees noted they have been working with an expired contract since 2011, which is the last time most workers got a raise.
And staff cuts mean remaining workers are asked to do more with less, the workers said.
Adding to the frustration, they said, is the fact that the agency contracts out some of the work previously done by union workers, leading some union workers to suspect the BMHA's long-range plan is to replace all BMHA union workers with private contractors.
“To say people are disgruntled is a gross understatement,” one of the white-collar employees said. “There aren’t enough workers. The administration doesn’t support its workers. Their long-term objective is to get rid of the union and outsource the staff.”
“Everyone is stressed,” he said. “I’d say, literally, sick time is the least of the housing authority’s problems.”
BMHA officials react
The agency’s top officials are aware that on some days, particularly in winter, sick time spikes.
Sanders-Garrett, the executive director, brought it up during a board meeting in February 2016, when other board members were talking about the challenges the authority faces trying to maintain its properties with the smaller staff.
She noted that 26 employees were out sick on a snowy Friday the previous week. The authority had to bring in private contractors to help clear snow that day, she said.
Sanders-Garrett said recently that the agency instructs its staff on proper sick-time use, and monitors suspected sick-time abusers.
A few employees a year are typically called in to discuss their use of sick time, but abuse is difficult to prove, said Theresa Spagna, the personnel director.
“We have a lot of employees who have been here a long time, and because of the years of service, are entitled to the benefits as long as they are used within the confines of the benefits,” Sanders-Garrett said, adding: “It’s difficult to challenge.”
The sick-time numbers don’t necessarily mean sick-time abuse, Sanders-Garrett added.
In addition to illness, employees can use sick time for their own medical appointments, or to care for sick children or parents, the executive director said. Twenty-three employees had approval for such time off during 2016, with 10 of them, for example, using a total of 809 hours to care for sick children or parents, she said. The 809 hours represent about 5 percent of the almost 16,000 hours in sick time used in 2016.
Sanders-Garrett also said sick time likely seems more pronounced as the staff shrinks.
Nonetheless, agency officials seemed surprised to hear that current and former employees acknowledged to The News that sick time is sometimes used as personal time, including when nearing retirement.
And Sanders-Garrett and her assistant executive director, Modesto Candelario, said they had never heard anything about workers taking off the last two hours of the day out of frustration, and not wanting to do required work.
The officials said that the agency has no plans to replace all employees with private contractors. But Candelario and Garrett-Sanders said it’s been necessary to privatize some functions such as extermination, trash pick-up and snow plowing to reduce costs, and provide dependable services.
“If productivity of employees is inadequate, we still have an obligation to serve the residents,” Candelario said. “We would outsource those services that are essential to our residents. We cannot expect the residents to wait so long for services to be provided.”
Sanders-Garrett and Candelario also said the agency is trying to do its best with the funding it receives.
“I think it’s tough all over,” Sanders-Garrett said. “However, we are here to do a job and to do it the best we can . . . No one is being asked to do something they are not getting compensated for.”