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Nevada firefighter wins wrongful termination lawsuit

One of the benefits many full-time employees enjoy is paid sick leave. Workers' ability to take a day off when they aren't feeling well gives them the chance to get better more quickly and avoid spreading illness to their co-workers. Some employees use sick days more often than others, perhaps due to chronic illness or because they have a child or other dependant who is often ill and needs extra care. But sometimes a higher frequency of sick leave use can lead employers to wonder if an employee is taking the time legitimately.

A firefighter in Clark County, Nevada, was fired last year for taking too much sick leave. The firing led the firefighter to sue the county for wrongful termination. Last week an arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate the firefighter to his position and reimburse him for lost wages or benefits.

The firefighter, who has worked for the county for nearly 20 years, was fired in May 2011 after an investigation of 20 firefighters suspected of misusing sick time. Even though he had the second-lowest use of sick time among all 20 workers, he was one of only two who lost their jobs. Because his union refused to represent him in arbitration, he used his own money to pay for an attorney to protest his termination.

The arbitrator found that the county had failed to meet the burden of proving he had abused his sick leave, along with other supposed violations. In fact, the arbitrator said, there was no evidence the firefighter had ever exceeded the amount of sick time to which he was entitled.

The firefighter has a severely disabled son in need of constant supervision and frequent medical attention. The firefighter's sick days were usually spent taking care of his son, which is allowable under most sick leave policies as long as the purpose is medical related. But the county accused the firefighter of using his son's disabilities as an excuse to cover for trips he'd planned out of town, a claim the arbitrator dismissed, in part because the firefighter never used sick leave in excess of three consecutive shifts.

Why was the firefighter in this case targeted? The arbitrator said the county's case was "built largely on speculation." Perhaps with better communication between employees and their supervisors, companies can avoid such legal tussles and allow workers to enjoy the benefits to which they're entitled.

Source: Las Vegas Sun, "Firefighter tied to sick pay scandal gets job back," The Associated Press, May 15, 2012

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