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Emanuel: ‘Days of gaming the system’ on absenteeism at taxpayers’ expense are over

Updated: September 28, 2011 6:18PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he will no longer tolerate “cannibalizing” rodent control, tree-trimming and other housekeeping services because of a pattern of absenteeism on Mondays and Fridays in the city’s third-largest department.

One day after releasing attendance records he claims show a pattern of abuse by Streets and Sanitation employees seeking to extend their weekends, Emanuel explained why he shined the light on garbage collection crews and plans to do the same “department by department.”

“Information, in the past, was held among the few and this was accepted practice. Go ahead. You can be sick on a regular basis on Monday and Friday. You can also play the game, look at the contract, figure out how to game the system,” the mayor said.

“The days of gaming the system at the expense of the taxpayers is coming to an end. I will do it department by department. Taxpayers work hard for their money. You work for them. They don’t work for you. … I expect you to do what you’re paid to do, which is show up and deliver a service. We should not be cannibalizing other services to do the most fundamental because a few individuals are abusing the system.”

Last week, Emanuel met with ward superintendents to lay down the law about chronic absenteeism at the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

He told them that abuse by a “few bad apples” had forced an unacceptable level of cutbacks in rodent control and tree-trimming services. And he warned the ward superintendents who supervise garbage collection crews that, if they fail to “manage it tightly” and come down hard on chronic abusers, they will be “held accountable.”

Earlier this week, the city released 13-months of attendance records that, Emanuel claims, show a pattern of abuse. The stats show roughly 6.6 percent of the workforce has unscheduled absences on Mondays, compared to 4.5 percent on Thursdays and 5 percent on Fridays.

Lou Phillips, business manager of Laborers Union Local 1001, countered that those same records underscore his argument that Emanuel’s earlier claim of a 33 percent daily absenteeism rate was exaggerated by lumping together employees who call in sick with those on duty disability and restricted duty.

He also claimed that employees who spent two years getting comp time instead of cash overtime were being refused when they ask to take off time, so some of them are “taking the day off anyway.”

On Wednesday, Emanuel gave no ground. He’s no longer using the 33 percent figure to describe the absenteeism problem in Streets and San. But he’s not letting go of the issue.

“There are a few individuals who, because of repetitive absenteeism specifically around Monday and Friday make our taxpayers not get all the services they’re paying for [and] are unfair to their fellow workers,” the mayor said.

“I wanted the information public. I believe information is powerful. We shouldn’t hide that information. The system basically accepted absenteeism as a given, and I said, ‘No. That’s not gonna be how we accept things. There’s a different culture.’”

Emanuel said Chicago Sun-Times stories about the attendance records and his meeting with ward superintendents had prompted phone calls from aldermen, committeemen and other elected officials. According to the mayor, they’re saying, “What’s going on [with the garbage crews] in my ward? I’d like to know.”

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