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Cobourg police see drop in sick days, but not without hurdles

By Valerie MacDonald, Northumberland Today

Cobourg Police Chief Kai Liu. VALERIE MACDONALD Northumberland Today

Cobourg Police Chief Kai Liu. VALERIE MACDONALD Northumberland Today

COBOURG -- The average number of days a Cobourg police officer is off on sick leave each year has plunged from five in 2011 to just one in the first half of this year - but it hasn't been without a fight, says Police Chief Kai Liu.

Reduced sick time translates into less overtime and more working time by officers to handle crime and community programs designed to increase safety, he said during a recent interview.

The current operating police budget of just under $7-million has a reduced budgeted overtime budget line from $120,000 annually to $30,000, partially due to this and other factors, according to the chief and the most recent report to the Cobourg Police Services Board.

As far back as 2011 when Liu was interviewed for his current position with the Cobourg Police Service, the issue of officer sick leave was highlighted. So when a pattern of sick leave was discovered with four officers, they were requested to provide doctors' notes, per the contract with the Police Services Board, Liu said.

Two of those cited for an abusive sick-leave pattern were the Cobourg Police Association's president and vice-president, long-time officers Larry Davis and Richard Ferguson. They grieved the situation and hearings were held for three days during last June and September, according to an arbitration decision issued on Oct. 26 of last year by William A. Marcotte of the Ontario Police Arbitration Commission.

The arbitration decision upholds the police contract as permitting the request for a doctor's note for every absence due to illness for a year because of the four-year sick time pattern of Davis and Ferguson exceeding the attendance standard of a four-year period.

Const. Greg McCurdy was the third person cited in the grievance and former Sgt. Jim Rutherford, (who has resigned), the arbitration award states.

E-mails and telephone calls to association executive heads Davis and Ferguson were made with requests for comments and interviews by this newspaper, but there have been no replies.

The grievance contended the Cobourg Police Services Board "improperly required Constables Richard Ferguson, Larry Davis, Greg McCurdy, and Sgt. Jim Rutherford to provide it with a doctor's note "¦"

The arbitration document contains this statement about Davis' record.

"Excessive sick leave usage has a financial cost. As a snapshot of the 401.25 sick leave hours used (by Constable Davis) in 2014, equates to $17,227.91. This figure does not include the cost of overtime for a replacement officer to cover staffing shortages.

"Excessive absenteeism caused by sick leave affects the effective, efficient and safe operations of our police service. Officers who are excessively unavailable for work affect the personal safety of other officers, disrupt shift integrity and preclude other personnel from internal job opportunities."

Although originally disputing the details of board e-mails requiring doctors' notes, subsequent investigation of the data Davis initially questioned "indicated more sick incidents for himself than the e-mail" from his employer, the arbitration judgement states.

The judgement notes that when Liu joined the police service in 2012, sick leave was identified as an issue and that the chief has identified it as "one component" of rising costs for small police services when he testified before Parliament in recent years.

When the judgement was received, Liu said all contract members were advised. That includes both uniformed officers and civilians of the 34-member police service.

"This (arbitrator ruling involves) a minority of officers," the chief said. "The majority of officers have little to no sick leave a year and I commend them for that."