Ocoee HR department lacked 'direction' to reimburse time off with negative Covid test, director says
City manager said quarantined employees awaiting Covid-19 test results would be reimbursed regardless of test outcome. But internal emails and memos show that those required to quarantine this summer were reimbursed only if they tested positive for the virus.
Despite assurances by Ocoee’s city manager that it was city policy to do so, the director of human resources said Friday that his department had not been directed to reimburse firefighters who had been ordered by a doctor to quarantine while awaiting results of a Covid-19 test if that test came back negative.
Internal emails obtained by VoxPopuli show that when the city’s Employer Provided Sick Leave policy was extended in August, HR only reimbursed those who had positive Covid-19 tests or who lived with someone who had Covid-19.
Other firefighters with Covid-19 symptoms who missed work because a doctor required them to quarantine while awaiting test results were not similarly compensated when their tests came back negative.
The unequal administration of this policy has “bred confusion within the fire department as well as anger and resentment,” said Chris Atalski, president of the Ocoee Professional Fire Fighters Local 3623.
During the pandemic, the city had allocated 80 hours of Employer Provided Sick Leave for city employees to cover quarantine for a Covid-19 illness, exposure and testing. After the federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act) expired Dec. 31, 2020, the city extended access to the benefits three times — through March, through April and finally through Sept. 30, the last day of the city’s fiscal year. Once the 80 hours were used, city employees were expected to tap their own paid time off (PTO) to cover Covid-related absences. Although the city commission gave City Manager Robert Frank the authority to extend the benefits on a month-by-month basis, as needed, the policy has not been renewed. The benefits were estimated to cost the city, conservatively, $15,000 a month.
When the CARES Act was in effect, "they would absolutely give you your hours if a doctor told you not to come to work," Atalski said in a phone interview Wednesday. "If you had a doctor’s note that said you couldn’t come to work and had symptoms, they would pay you. There was even a time where they got this antibody test and they tested everyone who volunteered. If the test came back with Covid antibodies, they would send you home for two weeks, and they would pay for you.
"Then they stopped," Atalski continued. "There were employees who were sick and told by a doctor not to go to work and all of a sudden they just stopped providing leave with pay. We don't know why they stopped. There was no explanation for why it changed."
One possible explanation, gleaned from a May 13 department directors' memo from HR Director Gene Williford, obtained through a public records request, is that "the city manager did not extend Covid Pay for the month of May," which forced employees to rely on their own personal time off (also called PTO) to cover Covid absences. An Aug. 3 agenda item cover sheet written by Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix, recommended that the city commission authorize Frank to extend Covid leave benefits through Sept. 30 and make payments retroactive to May 1. That same day, Frank sent a memo to all city employees, instructing those with "family members exhibiting symptoms, who are under self-quarantine, awaiting test results, or testing positive for COVID-19," to contact HR for more information, adding,"Each situation is unique and needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."
Two days later, on Aug. 5, HR's Williford sent out a directors level memo stating that the city would only reimburse employees who provided positive Covid tests or the positive test of someone in their household they'd been exposed to.
"See how confusing it is?" said Atalski.
Last month, VoxPopuli asked City Manager Robert Frank to clarify the situation. At the Oct. 5 city commission meeting, Frank was asked specifically about the city's reimbursement policy for city employees told to quarantine by a physician at the city's MyHealth clinic while waiting for their Covid-19 test results.
Frank unequivocally said, “yes,” that the city would reimburse city employees with negative Covid-19 tests, provided they hadn’t already used their sick leave benefits prior to Sept. 30.
Still, HR's Williford told VoxPopuli on Oct. 29 that he “had not received any direction on that” policy and referred us back to the city manager.
Frank did not respond to email or phone requests for comment about why, as the city’s CEO, he had not directed the HR Department to reimburse firefighters for negative Covid-19 tests as he said it was city policy to do.
Internal emails obtained by VoxPopuli indicate that the fire department’s management is also unaware of the city’s reimbursement policy, evidenced by email correspondence between union president Atalski and Ocoee Fire Chief John Miller.
During the commission meeting on Tuesday October 5th, Rob Frank was asked a direct question related to Covid leave benefits:
"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.”
Does the department plan to reimburse the employee(s) that utilized PTO prior to September 30, 2021 for Covid-related leave that meets this criteria?
IAFF Local 3623
His email got this response:
I am not aware of any changes in the COVID PTO “reimbursement” from what was distributed to the department via email after the emergency agenda item that the CM [city manager] asked the commission to approve. However, I will forward your email to the HR Director for review.
Atalski emailed a video of the Oct. 5 city commission meeting and asked:
Did the HR Director have any updates on Covid provided sick leave (reimbursement of pto)?
Chief Miller responded:
I have not had further discussions on this matter since my last email.
"Regardless of the test outcome, you shouldn’t have to use PTO hours during a pandemic because you’ve been mandated to quarantine while awaiting a test result," Atalski told us. "That’s the bottom line."
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