Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta Eyes Staff Cuts To Cover Cost Of Increased FDNY Sick Leave

NY Daily News - November 30, 2009

by Jonathan Lemire

The number of city firefighters calling in sick has soared so high this year that the FDNY may begin making staffing cutbacks to cover the cost, the Daily News has learned.

The 12-month average of firefighters taking medical leave is expected to hit 7.5% of the work force - a contractual threshold that gives Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta the option to cut staffing.

The number of firefighters at 49 of the city's busiest engine companies could be reduced from five to four if the threshold is met by tomorrow's deadline, according to FDNY sources.

If the medical leave rate hits 7.6% of the 8,700-person workforce, the cuts are mandatory. The change would save the department $500,000 a month in overtime needed to cover shifts left open by sick firefighters plus other savings, FDNY brass says.

FDNY sources said the agency has warned the union for months that the threshold could be reached. The annual medical leave rate last exceeded 7.5% in December 2004, prompting a round of cuts to fire engine crews. Those were restored a few months later.

While 60 of the city's 197 engine companies have five-firefighter teams due to heavy workloads, the others already have four firefighters. Eleven companies would be left with five.

News of the potential cutbacks troubled the fire unions.

"All medical leave is granted by a Fire Department doctor," said Al Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

"I've spent 35 years in the field and I know that firefighters are always coming in sick - sometimes they sound like a TB ward because everyone is coughing," said Hagan. "They only stay home when they are really, really sick."