The Sick-Day Bounty Hunters
As an alarming number of workers play hooky, corporations are clamping down—and calling in the detectives
By Eric Spitznagel
December 6, 2010
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.