Sick leave, transit strike cost Ottawa millions

Each City of Ottawa employee was off sick for more than 10 days on average in 2007, costing the city $27 million, a report from the city's auditor has found.

Each City of Ottawa employee was off sick for more than 10 days on average in 2007, costing the city $27 million, a report from the city's auditor has found.

Alain Lalonde said managers have told him some employees feel they have a right to take sick leave as days off even if they are not sick.

"Some people think that's OK to do that during the year, it's part of their benefits — so definitely, there is a shift in culture we need to be addressing," Lalonde said while presenting his report to city council Wednesday.

Despite the costs, decreasing sick leave among the 15,000 workers from an average of 10.6 days per year – nearly 160,000 days in total — is not a priority for city managers, the report said.

Lalonde's annual reports on the management and performance of city programs also found:

  • The 53-day OC Transpo strike cost the city $5.9 million, more than double the $2.7 million that Mayor Larry O'Brien had projected in February. That money included $2.3 million in payment errors, a $885,000 penalty for fuel that wasn't used and $1 million spent on taxi chits targeted at vulnerable residents.
  • The city's paramedic dispatch system is "flawed, ineffective and inefficient," and places the city at risk of responding too slowly to ambulance calls. The report noted that in 2007, of the 85,000 emergency calls the paramedics received, only a quarter resulted in patients being immediately transported to hospital, suggesting the rest were not life-threatening situations.
  • Management failed to take action over a known serious case of conflict of interest involving a supervisor who was running a private traffic engineering company, Partham Engineering Ltd., that did work for neighbouring municipalities. Nine city employees moonlighted for that company, some while on sick leave.

The latter case, which was declared by the city employee involved, earned some of Lalonde's most scathing comments. By failing to be proactive, Lalonde said, managers broke the city's code of conduct. He also noted that the workers involved were among the highest overtime earners within the traffic operations departments.

Paramedic recommendation

Auditor general Alain Lalonde slammed the city's outdated model for assessing emergency calls to determine how serious they are.

Under the current system, ambulances are being sent out with sirens and lights blazing to situations that turn out to be non-life threatening. That ties up ambulances unnecessarily and could make it difficult for the city to meet response times required by law.

Lalonde recommended that Ottawa adopt a new system, called the Advanced Medical Priority Dispatch System, now considered the standard in most North American cities.

City manager Kent Kirkpatrick said the city is already placing special paramedic responders in certain wards to help improve emergency response times. As for the Advanced Medical Priority Dispatch System, Kirkpatrick said Ottawa is waiting for a pilot project in the Niagara region to run its course and for the Ontario government to approve the system before it starts using it.

Anthony Dimonte, chief of Ottawa's paramedic service, said the current dispatch system is mandated by the province.

"There was little or no manoeuvring room for the city," he said.

Ontario's auditor general had already recommended that the system cited by Lalonde be deployed across Ontario, Dimonte added, and all that resulted was the study.

In a press release, city manager Kent Kirkpatrick said he agrees "with a significant majority" of Lalonde's recommendations.

He did not directly address the conflict of interest in the traffic department. Instead, he said, many of Lalonde's recommendations had already been addressed because "a new departmental management structure was put in place following a recent corporate restructuring."

City treasurer Marian Simulik said some of the OC Transpo strike costs were the result of a fixed-priced contract with a fuel supplier that the city couldn't get out of, even when the strike meant it couldn't use or even accept the fuel. The city's purchase policy has sinced been changed.

Sick leave findings 'unacceptable'

Mayor Larry O'Brien said he was concerned about Lalonde's findings on sick leave, including the fact that more than 7.5 per cent of employees took more than 20 sick days in 2007.

"It's certainly not something that I as mayor am very comfortable with," O'Brien said.

He said he wanted more detailed numbers in 2008 so he could see how the leave was distributed.

Coun. Alex Cullen, however, said: "It's unacceptable, sick leave is there when you are genuinely sick," he said. "Its not something you earn and then get to use at your discretion. Obviously, we're going to have to change this culture."