A total of 128 workers reported ill to Cook County Jail on Super Bowl Sunday – about a third more than a typical day of sick calls, NBC5 Investigates has found.
This comes after NBC 5 Investigates found that seven out of the top 10 sick days at the Cook County Jail, one of the largest county jails in the country, happened either the day of, or the day after, a major televised sporting event.
Over the past year, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has blamed excessive sick calls at the jail for several lockdowns – and the office has speculated publicly that some of the absenteeism appears to be connected to several high-profile sporting events, such as the Super Bowl.
But a spokesman at Teamsters Local 700, which represents jail employees, says it isn't so, claiming jail workers are being unfairly blamed for taking well-earned and much-needed time off.
So NBC 5 Investigates asked the sheriff’s office to give us the number of employee sick calls it has received every day, for the last four years. Those figures did not include the 2016 Super Bowl.
We examined the ten days with the highest number of sick calls, we did find a connection to major sporting events. But we found other connections as well.
For example, last month, on Jan. 12, the Cook County Jail suddenly went into lockdown mode, meaning the only inmate movements were for medical checks, court dates, or scheduled visitations. The lockdown was launched after 148 Cook County Corrections employees called in sick for their shifts. That Monday also happened to be the day after Alabama beat Clemson in the 2015 NCAA BCS College Football Championship. On a typical day, we found, roughly 91 jail employees report ill.
Similarly, two years ago in 2014, as the Florida State Seminoles claimed victory over the Auburn Tigers in the BCS National Championship game, NBC5 Investigates found that 441 jail workers called in sick, and another 299 called out the following day.
The jail was also short-staffed in February of 2015, during the weekend of Super Bowl XLIX. That Super Bowl Sunday, 386 jail workers reported ill, and 584 more called out on the following Monday.
In fact, we discovered that the number of jail employees who report ill on Super Bowl Sunday – and the day after – has been on a consistent rise for the past four years – until this year, when the number dropped sharply back down:
• 2012 – 189 sick calls for Super Bowl Sunday and the following Monday
• 2013 – 358 sick calls
• 2014 – 349 sick calls
• 2015 – 970 sick calls
• 2016 – 226 sick calls
That spike in 2015 – and its drop this year -- reveals another important factor, according to Dennis Andrews, the Business Agent for Teamsters Local 700, which represents and advocates for the jail workers: The weather.
In fact, last year’s Super Bowl XLIX happened the same day as the fifth largest blizzard ever to hit Chicago, dumping more than nineteen inches of snow on the city.
“Somebody will call in and they’ll say, ‘I can’t get out. The snow is three and a half feet deep,” said Andrews. “Can I get a personal day? Can I get a vacation day? ‘No. Call in sick.’ They’re told that. ‘Call in sick.’”
The night of the 2014 BCS Championship college football game was also a record-cold day in Chicago, with temperatures going as low as -16 degrees. And the lockdown in January occurred not just after a big football game, but after one of the harshest winter days of the year.
Andrews says Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is blaming jail workers for taking earned time off from their stressful and demanding jobs. In reference to the large absence the Monday after last year’s Super Bowl and “super storm:” “I would like to know how many of his top administrative staff came to work that day?” Andrews asked.
NBC5 Investigates’ analysis shows that weather appears to have been a factor in half of the top ten jail sick days. But we also found some big sick days that where weather didn’t seem to be a factor, but a major sporting event still was.
For example, 250 employees called in sick – more than two and a half times the average - on Saturday, May 2nd, 2015. The jail was put on lockdown. Another 237 called in sick the next day. Two big sporting events happened that weekend: The Kentucky Derby, and the boxing match dubbed as the “Fight of the Century,” between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
“It’s earned medical time,” says Andrews. “Officers earned that. If they need to use it, who am I, or who is anybody -- to question them using their earned time?”
The Sheriff’s office declined NBC5 Investigates’ request for an interview, but issued a written statement about employee sick days.
“Our correctional staff has arguably the most difficult job in Cook County,” the statement reads.
“These are the officers who are the real victims – working overtime in understaffed conditions – when a minority of our staff abuses their right to sick time. The Sheriff’s administration is trying to reform the system to hold all of our employees to the high standard that taxpayers expect, and we hope that the Teamsters administration will join us in that worthy mission.”