Following reports that the Department of Correction had tagged hundreds of its officers as chronic absentees after they were laid up by the coronavirus, two state Legislators have drafted a bill that would keep government workers from being similarly disciplined because of COVID-related illnesses.
The law would be retroactive to Jan. 1, and would presumably oblige the DOC to rescind their classifications of those officers.
According to a DOC directive, an officer is considered a chronic absentee if they report sick “on 12 or more work days within 12 months.”
While hundreds were initially classified as chronic absentees, a designation that could curtail opportunities for promotions, preferred assignments, including to a steady tour, voluntary overtime and other benefits, dozens successfully appealed to have the classification removed.
About 400 officers were denied appeals of the designation, however, a development State Sen. Diane Savino said was “beyond outrageous.”
She and Assemblyman Peter Abbate Jr. drafted the bill days after reports surfaced that the DOC had denied the officers’ appeals.
“The introduction of this bill serves as wake-up call that we’re prepared to legislate and fix this,” Senator Savino said during a Nov. 4 phone interview.
“What sense does it make for the New York City Department of Correction to use a policy that was really intended for chronic malingerers...and use this in a punitive way against them?” she said of the officers. “You’re creating a disincentive for people who are doing the right thing.”
How Appeal Process Works
According to DOC policy, officers have 20 days to appeal following their classifications as absentees. Their Commanding Officers review the appeal and forward it along with a recommendation to officials at the Health Management Division, who also make a recommendation. The appeal is then reviewed by the Chief of Administration, who makes a final determination according to the officer’s past use of sick leave, any line-of-duty injuries and other factors.
A union spokesman said that 100 officers out of the 400 had their appeals denied by the department’s Chief of Administration, Sherrie Rembert, even after they were approved by their Commanding Officers and the Health Division. COBA has filed a grievance on behalf of all 400 officers.
In a statement, DOC Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Peter Thorne said the DOC "will continue to examine excessive absences on a case-by-case basis and make determinations in accordance with the Department’s absence-control policy.”
About 1,440 officers have confirmed positive for COVID, according to a running tally compiled by the Board of Correction. Eight officers died as a result.
'Never Should've Happened'
Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said the 400 officers had followed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and directives from the DOC, but were nevertheless designated as chronically absent, “thereby tarnishing their records and hurting their careers.
He thanked the lawmakers for their “landmark legislation.”
“This should never have happened, particularly to an essential workforce comprised of first-responders,” he said.
Citing legislation enacted in mid-March that guaranteed paid leave for private-sector workers who were in mandatory quarantine, Senator Savino said similar protections should be extended to public-sector employees, particularly essential workers.
“We established as a matter of public policy that it was important for people to have sick days,” she said. “We went that far to keep the private sector home.”
Bars Adverse Action
The legislation would amend the state’s civil-service law by prohibiting “public employers from dismissing or taking other adverse disciplinary/personnel actions against a public employee related to absences related to COVID-19.”
In late October, 18 City Council members wrote DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann asking that the officers’ absence designations “be immediately overturned.”
“No punitive measures should be taken against these workers for following the proper protocol,” they wrote. “It is particularly outrageous that the 400 chronic absence denials even include 100 that previously had been approved by DOC’s Health Management Division. We must do right by these officers, some of whom tested positive multiple times and still have come back ready to serve.”
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