The Public Employees Federation is suing the state and several of its agencies alleging that they have failed to adhere to regulations that call for them to pay employees who followed quarantine mandates imposed early in the pandemic.
The suit, filed Jan. 15 in State Supreme Court in Albany, asserts that the state, the Department of Civil Service, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and the Office of Mental Health “irrationally and improperly deprived union members of their guaranteed rights to paid COVID-19 quarantine leave,” according to a statement from the federation.
The suit essentially alleges that the agencies did not follow the state’s mandates, including those under a March 2020 policy formulated by the Governor's Office of Employee Relations that employees who were subjected to 14-day mandatory quarantine by officials would be placed on leave with pay.
The suit also highlights the enactment of a law that provided paid and unpaid sick leave for public- and private-sector employees placed in quarantines related to the coronavirus. That law, signed by Governor Cuomo in mid-March, gave government employees at least 14 days of paid sick leave along with some unpaid sick leave.
The suit specifically alleges that the departments charged leave credits contrary to policies and statute.
"Our lawsuit asserts that state employers have irrationally and improperly deprived our members of their guaranteed right to paid quarantine leave during the COVID-19 pandemic," PEF President Wayne Spence said during a Jan. 15 press conference. "For some insane reason, agency leaders and managers are bringing more and more workers back into the office and creating a vicious cycle of positive tests, mandatory quarantines and, most importantly, putting the health of my union's members at risk."
The GOER and the Department of Civil Service did not respond to inquiries. Spokespersons for the Corrections and Community Supervision and the Office of Mental Health declined comment on pending litigation.
Alleges Many Affected
In one instance, according to the suit, a Parole Officer, Vivienne Chambers, was exposed to the virus by a colleague while they were searching for parolees in November. Although she tested negative for COVID, she was told to quarantine for 14 days and then for an additional seven days after a second test, also negative.
Despite the state’s quarantine-leave policies, though, DOCCS administrators obliged her to use her accrued sick leave for the entire 21 days, the suit says.
It contended she was “unilaterally denied her guaranteed right to paid quarantine leave” under state policy, and noted DOCCS’s “continued intent to circumvent” PEF’s rights under the policies and legislation.
Aside from Ms. Chambers, the suit also named a Teacher, a Social Worker and an Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator as plaintiffs. The union maintains that the issue has “likely” affected many more of its members.
Mr. Spence said the union had tried to remedy the situation without resorting to court action. Letters to the GOER and to agency commissioners did not receive responses, he said.
State Dummies Up
"We heard crickets," the PEF president said. "Even when we moved it up, we heard nothing. That silence tells me that the state is telling me and my members to go kick rocks. We feel confident if a judge really looks at what we're saying, based on a clear reading of the statute, they will side with us."
During the pandemic’s initial surge, about 85 percent of PEF members were telecommuting, according to the union. More than half, and up to 60 percent, have since retired to offices even as infection rates continue to climb.
"It's ridiculous and ludicrous to ask state workers to come back to work when they demonstrated they can successfully telecommute," Mr. Spence said.