Sick leave is costing S.F. $160 million

San Francisco could have hired another 1,800 employees with the $160 million it spent for sick and injury leave time last year. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s well-intentioned 2006 “Shape Up at Work” initiative was supposed to make employee health support a priority in all city departments. But Shape Up at Work and some similar city programs have been largely unfunded and sporadically enacted. They also mostly fail to collect and analyze data and record results, so it is unclear how effective they might be.

To be fair, San Francisco has experienced an overall reduction of lost work hours in recent years, down 6.7 percent since fiscal year 2004-05 for a savings of some $24 million. However, several key departments reported cost increases for sick and disability leave. San Francisco International Airport had a 9 percent increase in lost work hours, and paid leaves at the fire and police departments each climbed nearly 3 percent.

These statistics come from a new report issued by veteran city fiscal watchdog Harvey Rose, the Board of Supervisors budget analyst. The audit was requested by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who said his goal goes beyond seeking short-term help to reduce The City’s current deficits. He wants early action toward shrinking the massive health cost obligation for retired municipal employees, which could rise to $4 billion during the next 30 years. Elsbernd said City Hall should start developing ways right now for maintaining a healthier work force.

One factor noted in Rose’s report as possibly contributing to San Francisco’s continued “high costs for lost work hours” is that 44 percent of city firefighters are over 50 years old — more than twice the 19.5 percent national average. From 2004 to 2006, the SFFD absorbed $39 million in workers’ compensation and $23million in sick pay. Firefighters reported 1,205 serious work-related injuries or illness — 63 percent due to muscular or tendon sprains and strains. And 38 percent of citywide claims for cardiovascular problems were filed by firefighters.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White strongly disputed that an active-duty firefighter’s age directly relates to lost work time. And the department has just obtained a $1.2 million exercise program grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Newsom’s budget director, Nani Coloretti, said Rose’s numbers show that the Shape Up at Work initiative is beginning to help and “will continue … improvement in leave usage.” Coloretti noted that city employee participation has doubled and workers walked nearly 87,000 miles last year as part of the initiative’s 10-week walking challenge.

It is encouraging that The City is at least starting to pay consistent attention to the benefits of supporting employee fitness and health. This is a necessary first step toward significantly lowering avoidable budgetary losses for sick leave while also providing human benefits.

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