COVID-19 Creates Disarray On City Firefighter Shift

EAST CHICAGO, IN — The city racked up overtime costs after telling six firefighters to not report for their midnight Sunday shift and instead self-quarantine while they await coronavirus test results, officials confirmed.

Then, the next day, the city reversed course and told the same firefighters Monday to return to work while waiting for the results — even though a fellow firefighter tested positive for the virus the day before.

The fire department’s union president said he is concerned about the city bringing back firefighters prematurely. But city officials contend they are following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

According to the CDC, critical infrastructure workers, including first responders and firefighters, may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19 — so long as they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.

David Mata, president of East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365, said the confusion and sudden change of course in the particular Sunday to Monday shift has he and his fellow firefighters concerned about what he described as a lack of clear direction from the city.

“The problem I have is the city already sent these guys to get tested. To be safe, they should have kept them off until they got their results back,” he said.

City officials say the firefighters initially were told to stay home by mistake.

Mata said he has asked the firefighters to email the city’s human resources department documenting their conversation with the city. Mata said the firefighters were essentially told by the city to disregard clinical advice to self-quarantine and instead return to work.

“If they are being ordered to come back to work, that liability is no longer on the firefighters,” Mata said.

Firefighter reported exposure

Carla Morgan, city attorney, said a city firefighter last week self-reported his exposure to COVID-19 that took place outside of his employment with the East Chicago Fire Department.

She said the firefighter had already visited his own health care provider, who supplied documentation that the firefighter was being tested for COVID-19.  

“As a result, the six firefighters who we thought may have been exposed to the firefighter, who tested positive, were immediately notified and were sent to Midwest Express Clinic for testing,” Morgan said. “Midwest Express tested the firefighters and told them on Sunday to go home and self-quarantine, which is the protocol for essential workers, not the CDC guidelines for first responders.”

When the one firefighter’s test results came back positive Sunday, someone with the city followed the policy for essential workers, as opposed to the policy for first responders, Morgan said.

First responders can remain on the job asymptomatic, while essential workers are asked to self-quarantine if they are exposed, per CDC guidelines.

Overtime incurred

Mata said the city initially told the six firefighters not to show up for their scheduled midnight Sunday shift, which prompted the city to put in calls to other firefighters and pay them overtime.

Morgan said the city realized its mistake Monday and informed the six firefighters that, per the CDC guidelines, they should return to work as long as they do not have symptoms.

Morgan said the city “erred on the side of caution and paid for that mistake.”

“We paid overtime for the firefighters who filled in for those who received an additional paid day off. We continue to follow CDC guidelines to protect our firefighters,” she said.

The exact cost in overtime incurred was not immediately available Wednesday.

Mata said if the city is worried about overspending on overtime, there is $40 billion in federal funds available to reimburse cities up to 75% for firefighting and EMS overtime and back-fill costs related to the virus pandemic.

Mata said the city, in telling the six firefighters to self-quarantine, made them use sick pay for that shift.

“They don’t know if they’re going to get that back,” Mata said. “The city is not considering this an on-the-job injury, and we’re being forced to use our sick pay to keep collecting pay.”

Protections in place

Morgan said the city continues to provide every firefighter with personal protective gear, and each firefighter’s temperature is taken at the start of each shift using an infrared forehead thermometer. Firefighters have been instructed to wear masks at work for their protection, too, she said.

In a statement, East Chicago’s new Health Director Diana Garcia-Burns said it is the city’s utmost responsibility to protect all city workers, including first responders.

“We take their health very seriously. We continue to follow the CDC guidelines as they evolve with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Garcia-Burns said.

Already at odds

The mayor and the firefighters union have been at odds over a new labor contract and controversial shift changes enacted in late 2019. In December, firefighters were moved from a 24-hour on/48-hour shift rotation to a rare system of eight-hour, rotating shifts.

Mata said the COVID-19 crisis has proved a confusing time for city firefighters.

“We’re two months into this whole pandemic, and I feel like we’re still scrambling,” he said.

From The Times of Northwest Indiana