Sick day bounty hunters

[deleted account] ( 12 moms have responded )

by Eric Spitznagel
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

As an alarming number of workers play hooky, corporations are clamping down -- and calling in the detectives.

Rick Raymond parked his black Kia SUV behind a row of trees and peered out at his target. It was 4 a.m. on a recent morning, and Raymond -- a seasoned private detective who has worked roughly 300 cases, from thieves to philandering spouses -- was closing in on a different sort of prey. Recently, Raymond has come to occupy a new and expanding niche in the surveillance universe. Corporations pay him to spy on workers who take "sick days" when they may not, in fact, be sick. Such suspicion has led Raymond to bowling alleys, pro football games, weddings, and even funerals. On this morning it has taken him to a field outside the home of an Orlando repairman whose employer is doubtful about his slow recovery from a car accident. Although Raymond tries to be impartial about his subjects, "80 to 85 percent of the time," he says, "there's definitely fraud happening."

Playing hooky without getting caught -- as immortalized in the cat-and-mouse skirmish between Ferris Bueller and Principal Rooney in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" -- used to be an adolescent rite of passage. Now it has given rise to a thriving industry, with stern legal precedent to back it up. In 2008, Raybestos Products, a car parts manufacturer in Crawfordsville, Ind., hired an off-duty police officer to track an employee suspected of abusing her paid medical leave. When the employee, Diana Vail, was fired after the cop produced substantial evidence that she was exploiting her benefits, she sued Raybestos. In what became the landmark case for corporate snooping, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her lawsuit. A panel of judges declared that while surveillance "may not be preferred employer behavior," it wasn't unlawful. According to Susan W. Kline, a partner at the Baker & Daniels law firm in Indianapolis, the case "encouraged [companies] to consider hiring their own private detectives." It also set a precedent, she says, that "reasonable suspicion" is sufficient justification for employer spying.

Such techniques have become permissible at a time when workers are more likely to play hooky. Kronos, a workforce productivity firm in Chelmsford, Mass., recently found that 57 percent of U.S. salaried employees take sick days when they're not really sick -- a nearly 20 percent increase from statistics gathered between 2006 and 2008. Taking such risks amid an economic meltdown, suggests Kronos Senior Director Joyce Maroney, has less to do with foolish confidence than a general lack of enthusiasm for work. "People are staying in jobs they don't like because of a fear that there won't be another job out there," she says. "With less job satisfaction, there's a greater propensity for sick-time abuse."

That's great news for the corporate surveillance business. Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, a private investigation firm in Clifton Park, N.Y., with experience in corporate sleuthing, charges $75 per hour per investigator. And those hours add up. According to Alliance Chief Executive Officer and founder Mario Pecoraro Jr., successful surveillance requires establishing a pattern of activity that, he says, "can sometimes require multiple days, or even weeks."

Perhaps this is because workers have become increasingly inventive with their sick-day tomfoolery. This summer, Middletown (Pa.) schoolteacher Leslie Herneisey -- a three-time Teacher of the Year nominee -- was arrested and charged with lying to colleagues about having an inoperable brain tumor so she could take extended sick leave. In 2009 four firefighters in Haverhill, Mass., were suspended after a private investigator, hired by the mayor, caught them attending hockey games and engaging in other blatantly non-sick-day activities.

They are not alone in their ambition. Earlier this year, Raymond investigated an employee at a Florida health organization who called in sick with the flu for three days. As Raymond discovered, she was actually visiting the Universal Studios theme park. "On some of those roller coasters, they take your picture at a really sharp turn, and then you can buy it at a kiosk," Raymond recalls. "She went on three rides, and I bought all three of her pictures, which had the date at the bottom." When confronted with the evidence by her employers, Raymond says her first response was, "That's not me!" After they played Raymond's video of her volunteering at the theme park's animal show, her only defense was, "I don't even remember that!" She was fired.

While some employees may be less engaged in their jobs, many are increasingly interested in new and creative ways to get out of work. "It's all about technology these days," says Frank M. Ahearn, a New York-based equal opportunity "privacy consultant" who has helped employers "catch people who were supposed to be at work" and advised others on eluding their bosses. "If you understand how to use technology effectively, you can appear to be anywhere," he says. Ahearn once had a client who issued each of his employees a cellphone with a GPS tracking system. "He thought it was foolproof," Ahearn says. That was until the boss learned one employee had FedExed (NYSE: FDX - News) his phone to a hotel where he was supposed to be staying on a business trip. Instead, the worker opted for an exotic vacation. "It's a duel between bosses and their employees," Ahearn says. "Whoever has better technology usually wins."

One popular toy among the adult Ferris Bueller set is the SpoofCard. Sold on the Internet by Toms River (N.J.)-based TelTech Systems, a SpoofCard allows users to select any 10-digit number to appear on the phone of the person they're calling. When their customer calls in sick, the boss will see this number on the caller ID and assume the employee is at home in bed when he may actually be on line at the Matterhorn, or on the beach in Hawaii. Meir Cohen, president of TelTech Systems, insists SpoofCards don't pose any ethical dilemma. "We've had people misuse the technology occasionally for illegal purposes," he says, "but the majority of people use it to protect their privacy. If you have a boss that's prying into your personal life, this is a great tool."

Cohen also offers a chance to offset the SpoofCard with a new TelTech product, LiarCard, which uses voice analysis to determine if a caller is being dishonest. "We have companies that use the LiarCard for HR purposes," he says, "to find out if their employees are lying to them." Cohen doesn't mind selling a service to one customer that's designed to entrap another. "We want to help everyone," he says.

Cohen may have a point -- sometimes even corporate surveillance experts need watching. When he was working as a training director for a large detective firm, Rick Raymond once sent a rookie investigator and a seasoned veteran out on a routine job. Instead, the two opted to get drunk and watch football at a nearby Outback Steakhouse. Later that day, a secretary from Raymond's firm went to lunch at the same Outback and witnessed both detectives drinking beers and eating cheese fries. "They were there before she showed up," he says, "and they were still there, watching football and drinking beer, two hours later." When the pair submitted their surveillance logs for the week, both failed to mention their afternoon-long repast. Both were immediately fired.

As the sun rises over Orlando, Raymond's still sitting in his SUV, watching his repairman. He's now come to appreciate the employer-employee relationship. "I remember one worker who created an elaborate hoax to go on a cruise when he was supposed to be sick," Raymond says. "When he was shown the video surveillance I'd done, he actually said to his boss, 'I can't believe you'd be so sneaky.' The hypocrisy is amazing!" And it's great for business.


Thoughts? Opinions? I know of at least 2 people who were fired because of calling in sick on days they weren't sick (both were stupid enough to post what they were doing - an out of town baseball game and a hunting trip - on their Facebook pages... and they were FB friends with coworkers...).

Personally, I've called in sick on days I wasn't sick before. But that was because I HATED my job and I ended up quitting anyway (and I always stayed home - it would be stupid to go out in public! ALthough I did call in sick to get an extra day on my honeymoon... lol).

But, I can see where these businesses want to keep an eye on it since it does seem to be pretty common place to call in sick to do something fun these days...

Eh, I think it's a buisness' right to investigate their employees for something like this, especially if the sick days are paid sick days. I've found, though, that stunts like this always bite the person pulling them in the ass anyway... If you use your sick days on fun stuff, what do you do when you're really sick?


View replies by

Hannah - posted on 12/08/2010




Sick time at my work is called PTO, or personal time off. It is different than vacation time but still can be used however you would like, sick or not. If you use all your sick time you can still call in sick and take it unpaid. However, if it is excessive, they will fire you!

Jodi - posted on 12/08/2010




Emma, I have fired someone for being sick all the time......I don't believe she was sick, she was just fucking lazy. But it got to a point where she used up all her leave and would still call in sick. Our company only required a certificate if you took more than 2 days in a row, so she always got away with it.....until we sacked her. Honestly, what company can afford to carry someone like that? Even though we weren't paying her, we did have to call in a temp to help out various times, and they cost a lot more money.

[deleted account]

Most of the jobs around here do not differentiate between "sick time" "personal time" and "vacation time", it is all just "Paid time off" (PTO) and you can do whatever you please when you are away from work as long as you have the time available.
That said, if you use it all up on a month long vacation then get sick two months later, you get fired.

I suppose that if a company does give employees unlimited sick time that is separate from vacation hours or personal leave, then they should be able to make sure the employee calling in is actually sick, since they are paying the employee for the day, but the fact that they might check up on the employee should be mentioned in the employment contract.
Honestly, I've never seen a job that does that, but apparently, a lot of companies do.

Stifler's - posted on 12/08/2010




I know someone who worked a 5 day a week office job. She called in sick like at least one day a week for various and different reasons, none of which were being sick for like 2 years they put up with it, god knows why. I'd fire an employee that was sick one day a week regardless of whether they were or not, they're wasting my time. Go get a disability pension.

[deleted account]

Good point Becky. One day every once in a while is IMO (and I've done it) not really a big deal. BUT, these people that take more than that at once, or use it for "vacation" time if their original request was denied (I actually worked with someone who was stupid enough to request vacation time, have it denied, and then call in sick every day the week he had requested the time off - duh you idiot! He was fired...) should have the company on their asses.

It's called working FOR someone else, not deciding when the heck you want to work and expecing your boss to go with the flow...

If I ran a company and someone called in sick for more than 2 or 3 days, you can bet I'd have an investigator on them if my company could afford it! Especially people who make salary since sick days don't affect their pay at all...

Becky - posted on 12/08/2010




I don't think someone should be fired for occassionally taking a sick day when they're not actually sick. Maybe they just really need that day off for their mental health. If you have an allotted number of sick days, then as long as you stay within that number of paid sick days, it shouldn't matter why you're taking them. I had 10 paid sick days at my old job. Occassionally, I called in sick when I wasn't actually sick, but was super tired, or was a little sick (pregnancy nausea, for instance) but not actually too sick to work. The rule at our job was that if you were sick for 3 days in a row, you needed a dr's note.
Now, if someone is using extended medical leave, like the person who claimed they had a brain tumor, when they're not actually sick, then yes, I absolutely think they should be fired.
I do think it's pretty stupid to post what you're doing on facebook if you've called in sick to work!
If my boss was spying on me on a one day off type of thing -especially since I very rarely called in sick - I'd be pretty pissed. If I'd been off for 3 weeks and they were spying on me to make sure I was actually off for the reason I claimed to be off, I could understand that. I know WCB will do that when you file a claim with them, to make sure you actually have the injury you're claiming.

Stifler's - posted on 12/08/2010




I think it's their right also. They're paying you sick leave because you're too sick to work not so you can holiday while all the other employees pick up your slack and cancel their plans to come in to work because you "can't". Take annual leave or put in for rostered days off if you want a holiday. I'm pretty sure in Australia you have to provide a doctor's certificate if you have more than 1 day off in a row anyway or you don't get paid sick leave. It's not hard to go to the doctor and say you have stomach cramps and get them to write a note saying that you need 4 days off though.

Lindsay - posted on 12/08/2010




While I think this is a bit extreme, I can understand why a company would do it, espcecially for salary based employees. I don't see any companies going to this for hourly employees that typically have a set amount of vacation and sick time.

I don't think that providing a doctor's note is necessarily alwasy the best way to go either unless less it's an employee out for multiple days. If you have a stomach virus, there's nothing a doctor can do for you. You need rest and fluids so why would you even see the doctor?

I wouldn't be happy about being spyed on by a company. I guess i can't blame them for it either, though.

[deleted account]

Kati - at one job I had to provide a doctor's note too, but how ridiculous is it to go to the doctor when you have a cold and can't work? Really? THey want me to drag my sick ass out of the house, all the way to the doctor's office, pay the $20 copay, potentially infect everyone in the waiting room while I wait for my doc to have 2 freaking minutes ('cause the nurses at my doc's office NEVER answer the damn phone), and then drag my ass back home to rest? I would get a lot better a lot sooner if I didn't have to do that. So, I don't think that every single sick day needs a doctor's note, BUT, I think that if someone is claiming a brain tumor (example from the article) then they should have to provide a valid and verifiable doctor's note.

Jenny - posted on 12/08/2010




I would quit working for any company that spied on me. The idea of it makes me ill. I better call my boss =P

Meghan - posted on 12/08/2010




I totally understand the business end of it...but what is wrong with playing hooky? If it becomes a problem and its obvious then fire them...if its a once in blue moon thing and the person has been a good employee otherwise, who cares?

Rosie - posted on 12/08/2010




well, i don't get paid sick day soooo.....i think it would be alot cheaper than hiring an investigator to simply make these people who abuse the system have a doctors note. that is how it is at my hubbys work, and for fulltimers at my work. makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than hiring an investigator.

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