They were told to quarantine while they waited for their Covid-19 test results. When the tests came back negative, the city of Ocoee didn't always reimburse firefighters the way it said it would.
Ocoee city employees will be reimbursed for sick time if ordered to quarantine by the city's physician while awaiting a Covid-19 test, regardless of the outcome. That's provided they hadn’t used up their 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave before Sept. 30. Ocoee's City Manager Robert Frank made that unequivocally clear at Tuesday night’s city commission meeting.
However, the city’s human resources department’s "case by case" implementation of this policy has created confusion, anxiety and resentment within the fire department. Some firefighters, who’ve been denied reimbursement, feel penalized for not testing positive for Covid-19 after being told to quarantine.
Once the Employer Provided Sick Leave (EPSL), authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, expired Dec. 31, 2020, the city commission extended it first to March 31, giving Frank the authority to extend the benefits, as necessary. Those benefits were then extended through April. On Aug. 3, Frank requested an additional extension to Sept. 30, which the city commission passed unanimously 4-0 with Commissioner Wilsen absent.
“Back in March and April, we were authorizing additional leave for those employees who had to quarantine at home or showed evidence of some type of illness, and we’d send them home until they could get some type of test showing they were positive for Covid or not,” Frank explained at the Aug. 3 commission meeting, seeking the emergency extension. “Because of these variants we’re seeing now, we think it would probably be prudent to offer that again and actually do it retroactively to May 1 and catch those few people we didn’t get, and we’re thinking till the end of the fiscal year,” he said at that meeting, referring to the fiscal year that ended a week ago.
Frank further explained that the extended leave policy was intended to reimburse each employee for a single quarantine period. “It’s not for a recurring basis over and over. If you end up getting sick and needing to be quarantined two or three times, then depending on where it falls in the schedule, you may be required to use some of your PTO [paid time off]. However, if it’s once, then this 80 hours should take the 10 days you need to quarantine.”
VoxPopuli questioned Frank on city's application of the policy during Tuesday night’s meeting from the speaker’s podium:
VoxPopuli: “If an employee has a negative Covid test and they have not used the 80 hours the city has promised, and it is before Sept. 30, will the city reimburse that time that the city doctor has mandated that the employee has to be out of work?”
Robert Frank: “Yes.”
Despite Frank’s definitive response, it does not appear that the policy has been carried out uniformly. Emails obtained by VoxPopuli show the city’s human resources department at odds with the city’s stated policy, its application on a “case by case” basis and the fire chief himself unclear about how the policy is implemented.
Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623 President Chris Atalski to Fire Chief John Miller: Can you confirm what the criteria is (highlighted below)? We are currently working on a few that have been told by HR that they do not qualify for reimbursement, but these employees were told by a medical professional to stay home and quarantine.
Also, as a reminder, Chief Smothers sent out an email last week to the department about the deadline from HR for employees to submit documentation as copied below. I am hopeful that employees that believe that they may meet this criteria have submitted the necessary paperwork prior to the deadline.
Chief Miller to Union President Atalski:
Again, I must refer you to the HR Director, as each situation is handled on a case by case basis. I, nor any department director, want to unknowingly provide personnel with any possible misleading information. HR would be the avenue for an employee to address this concern as it relates to their situation.
Union President Atalski to Human Resources Director Gene Williford:
Gene, Can you confirm the criteria for Covid provided sick leave? There seems to be confusion.
HR Director Williford to Union President Atalski:
The employee has to produce a positive COVID test for them or a family member living with them do the [sic] time period. Without a positive test they will not be reimbursed.
[Human resources specialist] Stefanie Wilson has explained this to ________ on two separate occasions.
Firefighter Michael Menegat hadn’t used any of his 80-hours of EPSL when his wife tested positive for Covid-19 in July. While he and his children tested negative, he said he was instructed by Ocoee’s HR department to quarantine for five days, and if he didn’t have any symptoms, he could return to work.
“That was on a Monday,” recalled Menegat in an interview. “On Tuesday and Wednesday, I called the battalion chief, I called HR, I called the deputy chief, requesting something in writing about when I could return. I have it all documented. Seven different times, I requested somebody to put something in writing for me from the city telling me when I would be eligible to come back to work, and I got no response from anyone.”
Menegat lost 48 hours of PTO that the city used to cover his time in quarantine. On July 7, he emailed Deputy Chief Tom Smothers to ask for reimbursement. Five days later, he got this response from Smothers:
I hope your wife is recovering well, and glad to hear neither you or your son were affected by the virus.
As far as your request below, as of April 30, 2021 LWP [leave with pay] for COVID related issues has expired.
Therefore, any COVID related absences are considered personal time off and LWP is no longer available.
Let me know if you have any further questions,
Menegat immediately filed a grievance with the union to get his PTO back. Once the city commission voted to extend the EPSL through September, he found his PTO hours back in his account.
Firefighter/paramedic Rob Smith hasn’t been so fortunate. His claims for PTO reimbursement have repeatedly been denied by the city’s HR department, much to his bewilderment. The firefighter, who stressed that he’s never been ill (“I haven’t even had a cold or a fever in like nine years”), said he feels like he followed the rules and is being punished for not getting Covid-19.
“I did everything they told me to do, and I essentially just got 72 hours of PTO stolen,” said Smith in an interview. He’s not using his real name out of fear of retaliation from the fire department.
In July, he called the city doctor at MyHealth, the employee health clinic, at 2 a.m. after feeling lethargic all day and coughing up phlegm all night. The on-call physician ordered him to get a Covid-19 test and to stay home from work until he received a negative result. The physician insisted on the 48-hour test rather than the rapid test, so Smith ended up missing three shifts as he waited for his test results.
Smith hadn’t used any of his 80 hours of EPSL so he didn’t expect a problem getting reimbursed, especially since his quarantine was physician-mandated. But when his Covid-19 test came back negative, the city refused to reimburse him, and, instead, deducted his PTO account.
“We only get 20 hours [of PTO] a month,” Smith said. “I lost three and a half months of PTO I’d been saving up in a matter of three days.”
Smith wants that money back. “My whole thing is that I was out on Covid leave, and I wasn’t able to return to work. “
“It looks pretty cut and dried to me,” said District 4 Commissioner George Oliver in an interview. “He had a doctor’s order to isolate and that should have been covered under the 80 hours.”
While benefits lapsed as of Sept. 30, the Aug. 3 vote gave Frank the authority to provide EPSL benefits “through September 30, 2021 with additional extensions on a monthly basis as needed,” according to the minutes of that meeting.
When Oliver asked Frank on Tuesday night if those benefits would be extended into the next fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, or be cut off completely, the city manager responded, “So what you all authorized was until the end of the fiscal year, which was Sept. 30 for anybody who had not used the 80 hours. So it allowed up to 80 hours for everybody in the city, one time,” he told the commission. “We have nothing right now except personal time off, as of right now.”
That means firefighters, who need to quarantine in the new fiscal year, will be paying out of pocket through their PTO accounts.