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Editorial: Heavy use of sick time is more evidence of trouble at the BMHA

More evidence – not that any was needed – of the need for substantive change at the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority arrived in the form of a Buffalo News analysis showing that workers used an alarming number of sick days. Some would call it abuse.

That particular problem can be solved by negotiating better terms with employees. It should be on the agenda for the recently reformulated BMHA board.
Mayor Byron W. Brown has proven himself a good negotiator with city unions, agreeing only to what the city can afford. While he has no direct control over the BMHA, he should encourage the board, which is made up mostly of his appointees, to get tougher.

The mayor shook up the board over the summer, replacing members who had presided over the decline of the BMHA with what appear to be solid choices. While getting tougher with sick time abusers will help, the multiple shortcomings of the BMHA point to a culture in need of serious overhaul. That can’t happen without a change at the top, something the old board was unaccountably reluctant to do. The board should replace Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett and undertake a major re-examination of the agency.

Complaints about the BMHA are many. It has hundreds of rundown and vacant apartments at the Commodore Perry development and vacant, dilapidated units creating blight in the neighborhood encircling the A.D. Price Courts.

Complaints about broken elevators, burned-out lights and rundown apartments in buildings that are occupied add to the story. Tenants have to wait, sometimes for days, before what’s broken gets fixed. Now it turns out part of the reason for those delays is the number of employees who seem to be treating sick days as additional personal days to be taken as needed.

According to a recent analysis by News staff reporter Susan Schulman, sick day spikes occurred on Fridays and Mondays, especially the Monday after a Sunday Bills football game. Other popular times to call in sick: work days before or after a holiday, such as the Fourth of July or Presidents Day, especially when it’s snowing.

Almost a quarter of the BMHA’s workers called in sick for at least 25 days in 2016.

There’s more. The number of employees using sick time to go home early increases as the day advances. Take, for instance, Nov. 18, 2016, when some 25 people called in sick by the end of the day. That is 16 percent of the BMHA workforce. It happened to be the day before the start of deer hunting season. Coincidence?

The BMHA union contracts offer a generous sick time policy, to say the least. Most employees get up to 13 to 15 sick days a year, and many are allowed to accumulate up to 180 or 300 days of sick time, depending on their hire date. Another benefit is that employees are allowed to take sick time in two-hour increments. Doctors’ notes proving illness don’t come into play until an employee is absent five consecutive days. Upon retirement, up to 50 or 60 sick days can be cashed in. All in all, not a bad deal.

Problems arise when sick days are used as personal days. This despite the five personal days most employees actually get, in addition to four to five weeks of vacation and 13 paid holidays.

Whatever’s going on, one thing is certain. A culture exists at the housing agency that says, “You can use sick days when you are not sick.”

A few current and retired workers agreed to talk to The News and expressed frustration over several points, including not having enough employees to do the work. The biggest frustration came down to management: “They are sick all right. They are sick of the administration,” one worker said.

Sanders-Garrett and her assistant executive director, Modesto Candelario, expressed shock that their workers would take off the last couple of hours of the workday out of frustration or just not wanting to work a full day.

The mayor and the BMHA board have an obligation to the tenants, the taxpaying public and the agency’s conscientious employees. The difficult decisions necessary to fix the BMHA can’t be put off any longer.

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