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Federal Way officer battles breast cancer without paid leave | City denies exception to policy

Federal Way police officer Stacy Eckert and Special Olympics Washington athletes Cory Dempsey, left, and Loren Kodimer pose in April 2009 at Red Robin during the Tip-A-Cop event. - Mirror file photo
Federal Way police officer Stacy Eckert and Special Olympics Washington athletes Cory Dempsey, left, and Loren Kodimer pose in April 2009 at Red Robin during the Tip-A-Cop event.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

Federal Way police officers will sport their poker faces March 25 in support of a fellow officer who is on leave without pay while she battles cancer.

The Texas hold ‘em event is organized by the Federal Way Police Guild and is not open to the public. More than 100 officers, paying a $60-per-person entry fee, are anticipated to turn out. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds from the tournament and a silicone bracelet sale will go to Officer Stacy Eckert, who has breast cancer. The remaining money will go to a cancer foundation.

Eckert is on leave, until an undetermined date, without pay. In January, she filed a shared leave request, which asked Police Chief Brian Wilson and Mayor Skip Priest to make an exception to the city’s leave policy to allow Eckert to accept sick leave in excess of 28 hours from her co-workers. Leave is considered shared when an employee depletes his or her own leave and is given authorization to accept leave from co-workers.

Though the city has a set policy regarding the practice, exceptions can and have been made in the past.

Management refused to make an exception in Eckert’s case. She was permitted to accept 28 hours of leave from her co-workers (a match of the highest number of sick hours she had accumulated in the past year). Eckert wishes the city would reconsider its decision.

“No matter what their reason is, I still think they need to rethink it, just because of the severity (of the situation),” she said.

Cancer stricken

Eckert is an eight-year veteran with the Federal Way Police Department. She’s worked patrol and as a school resource officer. She’s also been heavily involved in the department’s support of Special Olympics Washington and earned a 2008 Police Chief Citation award.

Eckert received a mammogram in November and was informed in December of her medical condition. In January, she stepped away from her duties to undergo a mastectomy. She’s had one more surgery since.

The Mirror became aware of Eckert’s condition through a letter to the editor. Eckert agreed to share her story when contacted. Per state law, the City of Federal Way did not provide details specific to Eckert’s situation.

Shared leave

Wilson, speaking in general terms, said the city’s leave policy is clear. Shared leave is sick leave that employees willingly donate to another employee. According to the Federal Way employee guidelines, shared leave is meant to be used when employees have exhausted their own accrued paid leave and when conditions, such as a medical emergency, would otherwise call for employees to resign or take leave without pay.

“While an employee is on shared leave, he or she will continue to be classified as a city employee and shall receive the same treatment, with respect to salary and benefits, as the employee would otherwise receive if using paid leave,” according to the employee guidelines.

Per policy, an employee can accept shared leave to the extent that it matches the employee’s total accumulated sick leave within the past year. However, an exception to this match can be made with the approval of a department director and the mayor, according to the guidelines.

Eckert, knowing she’d deplete her own leave hours and knowing several of her co-workers were willing to donate their leave, requested such an exception. Management has not explained why her request was not fully filled.

“So many people have called and said ‘This is so unfair. We want to donate to you. Why can’t we donate to you?’” Eckert said.

City policy

Wilson said it’s important not to veer from policy because it may encourage undesirable consequences.

“There’s 100 percent commitment by myself and the staff to do whatever we can to help our people through these times,” Wilson said. “At the same time, we need to follow policy and make sure we don’t create negative incentives.”

Some employees abuse their sick leave and use it when unnecessary, he said. Making an exception to the policy could give employees the impression that the abuse is acceptable, Wilson said.

An exception would also require Wilson to place a value on each employee’s sick leave, he said.

“The last thing that I want to start doing is deciding whether someone’s sick time is more deserving than someone else’s,” he said.

Wilson said he encourages his employees to maintain a high level of accumulated leave time. He suggested employees bank approximately 160 sick and vacation hours to ensure they will be covered in an emergency.

“It’s really important to keep a balance, to keep hours in there,” he said. “My goal has been to try to get people to keep higher balances.”

Eckert said she has not abused the city’s leave policy. She has two small children at home and takes time off work to care for them when needed. After giving birth in 2005, she depleted her leave. In addition, she used three days of leave in 2009 when she was injured on duty and underwent surgery on both knees.

“It’s not like I’ve been out vacationing or have abused it, per se,” Eckert said.

Exceptions

Though exceptions to the city’s shared leave policy may not be preferred, they have been granted in the past, according to public records.

• On Nov. 4, 2009, a record specialist requested 120 hours of shared leave to address an illness in the family. She was new to the department, had already used 34 hours of leave and had only eight sick leave hours remaining. She did not qualify for shared leave, but requested an exception. The exception was granted by Andy Hwang, deputy police chief, and Brian Wilson, who was serving as city manager at the time.

• On Nov. 23, 2009, a shared leave request was submitted by a human resources staff person. According to public records, the woman qualified and had received approximately 49 shared leave hours, but was requesting an additional 120 hours to address unanticipated medical issues. The request was approved by human resources director Mary McDougal and city manager Wilson.

• In 2000, another employee received 266.3 shared leave hours. An exception to the policy was made, as the woman’s match would have been 108 hours.

Eckert doesn’t feel the decision to deny an exception is personal, and she does not feel the department is a hostile work environment. She’s been assured she can return to work when she is healthy, and she looks forward to doing so: “There are going to be hurt feelings no matter how this thing turns out,” she said.

Regional policies

Eckert’s situation highlights how Federal Way’s shared leave policy differs from other regional municipalities.

To qualify for shared leave, the employee must have depleted total leave time. To qualify to donate shared sick leave, an employee must have at least 100 hours of accrued sick leave after the donation, and may only donate eight hours per incident of shared leave, according to the employee guidelines.

Auburn practices a shared leave policy that may be used if the recipient has a severe, extraordinary and life-threatening health condition, as determined by the city. It requires an employee deplete all paid time off before accepting shared leave from co-workers. The donor must maintain a minimum of 160 hours of sick leave at all times.

Burien’s shared leave policy also differs from Federal Way’s. To be eligible to donate vacation or sick leave, the donor must have at least 10 days of accrued vacation or sick leave, depending on which leave is being donated, according to the City of Burien. The transfer of leave will be in increments of one day. There is not a limit to the number of shared leave hours an employee may accept.

In Kent, an employee suffering from a catastrophic physical or mental condition is eligible for shared leave — if the condition is likely to cause the employee to take leave without pay or to terminate employment. The shared leave cannot exceed 180 days, with the exception of military leave. Regular employees may donate annual leave, compensatory time, personal holidays and management leave in 1-hour increments.

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