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It just makes you sick

It hasn’t been a banner year for City of Hamilton employees.

This summer one employee was found to have been stealing $1 million from the city over a nine-year period. And rubbing salt into taxpayers’ wound, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 5167 is representing the worker who filed a grievance after the city fired him.

Then later there was the case of the transit manager who was found by an arbitrator to have sexually harassed a worker, who worked for him. The city fired the manager, but not before providing him with a $200,000 severance, and a positive reference, which contributed to him getting a job at the City of Guelph. Guelph fired him soon after the results of the harassment verdict were made public. Both times city manager Chris Murray was put in the awkward position of defending his staff’s response to poor employee behaviour.

And don’t forget the scandal involving the employees who were practically goofing off on city time. The city fired 29 employees in early January for inappropriate behaviour, and then re-hired seven of them. An investigation of their superiors revealed 16 of the 28 managers either were hit with suspensions, or left the city over the incidents that occurred in 2012.

Then this week it was revealed Hamilton employees’ absenteeism has hit a record high, costing taxpayers about $11.6 million a year, a jump from 2009 when the absenteeism rate was already at a cringe-inducing $9 million.

And even though politicians since 2010 have been harping on city staff to get a handle on the rising cost and the increasing absenteeism, it seems senior management hasn’t made it a top priority for the corporation.

Politicians, in particular Stoney Creek councillor Brenda Johnson, found city staff’s response half-hearted.

“It makes me shake my head again,” she said. “If I saw these figures I would ask my boss to fire me.”

Employee sick days continue to increase, with the average person taking 2.77 sick days, up from 2.52 last year. And employees on Workers Safety and Insurance Board claims are now off for an average of over nine days, an increase from eight days a year ago.

City staff say they are monitoring the situation, and hope to get the absenteeism down to a day by December 2014. They also promised to make absenteeism a point in the next round of contract negotiations with unions.

A more stricter policy needs to be put in place, one that includes demanding employees provide doctors’ notes after one or two days rather than allow them to sit at home collecting pay for five days before handing over a physician’s document.

Even though senior staff, including Murray talked about changing the city’s culture, allowing for a more welcoming environment, free of sexual and physical abuse, this year has proved that working for the City of Hamilton has become a free-for-all, with employees practically doing whatever they want without repercussions.

As councillors pointed out, simply reducing the absenteeism cost would practically eliminate the need for a tax increase this year, while also preserving services and needed programs. Yet, for the last four years city staff have sloughed off the issue, deeming it less important and not in the public interest.

But this year, employee behavior has become a public fiasco, and revealing that senior Hamilton staff haven’t done enough to make it a high priority issue. Hamilton’s employment culture needs to change, or this year’s bad news, will only get worse.

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