Are public employees really as sick as they claim?

CLEVELAND - The Investigator, Tom Meyer, uncovered some eye-opening evidence on sick time in an exclusive government waste investigation.

Action News found that as most folks hustle in to work every day, a healthy number of government workers call in sick. It's a routine that plays the same way over and over, according to Cuyahoga County recorder Pat O'Malley.

"There is a perception, and the perception is based on truth, that public employees are on the gravy train," O'Malley said.

Action News decided to investigate the use of sick time at the county. The records show county employees, on average, miss a lot of work, and you're paying for it.

Some county employees, like Kerstin Hart, told The Investigator they know that they're on an undesirable list. Hart called it "the sh-- list."

Hart processes important documents for taxpayers in the Clerk of Courts office. Last year, she took 41 sick days, which amounts to two months off the job.

"I'm not proud of it," she said. "I'm trying to do better."

The 3,700 employees under the Board of Commissioners took a whopping 69,000 sick days last year. On average, that's almost four weeks of sick time per employee.

"I'd say they're taking advantage of it and abusing it," O'Malley said.

Virtually everyone -- 83 percent of the workforce -- took 10 or more sick days, and nearly one out of every 10 took 25 or more sick days.

"That's terrible," retired Clevelander Walter Penkal said. "It increases the cost of government."

The Investigator found documentation of county employees who took 58, 67, 78 and even 115 sick days in just one year.

"I think if someone is getting sick that often, they shouldn't be working," one county resident said.

The trickle-down effect is felt by taxpayers, who are picking up the annual $16 million tab.

"This isn't a social service agency where they get free money," O'Malle said. "This is the public's money."

Action News went to the head of the county commissioners to show him the staggering numbers. President Jimmy Dimora said that some employees are taking advantage of federal law that allows more excuses for calling in sick.

"It's a lot harder to police it and enforce it and catch people abusing it," he said.

A number of county employees take a lot of sick time for good reasons. Still, top officials admit that there's widespread abuse.

At the county recorder's office, sick time is down since the boss began firing sick time violators.

"I think the government in general has had a reputation of being too lenient, and that reputation is deserved," O'Malley said.

County leaders told Action News that they are looking at incentives to keep the working coming back to their jobs. Incentives might include a half day's pay for each sick day not used.