BETHEL — A weeks-long stalemate over mandatory COVID testing has led to the dismissal of a firefighter at Center Pigeon fire department in Bethel.
Jared Pless, a 26-year-old firefighter, tested positive for COVID in late-November. He was barred from returning to work until he could produce a negative COVID test, and was eventually terminated after refusing to get one.
Fire Chief Johnny Pless claims the policy is aimed at keeping COVID from infiltrating the ranks of firefighters and protecting those whose homes firefighters must enter.
“We are going into old people’s homes that are already sick, and if we carry it in to them, they could die,” Chief Pless said.
But Jared Pless, who happens to be the chief’s nephew, claims the policy is an overreach. It doesn’t square with CDC guidelines and runs counter to his return-to-work clearance from the county health department, so he refused to get a test.
“They were not going to accept anything less, so it was a stalemate at that point,” Jared Pless said. “It wasn’t just about me. I knew if I jumped through the hoops and went through the motions, it wasn’t going to change anything.”
Jared Pless has long since returned to work at his two other jobs: as a captain at the Cruso Fire Department and a fire instructor at Haywood Community College. Neither required a negative test.
It’s uncommon to require one, because someone can continue to test positive for three months after having COVID. Nonetheless, Chief Pless said the peace-of-mind is at least worth a try.
“We ask for a negative test to put on file to prove they are no longer carrying it,” he said. “If they’re still positive, we will address it on a case-by-case basis. We can cross that bridge when it comes. But there are no exceptions to the test.”
However, Jared Pless questioned the rationale of requiring a test only to make an exception after the fact.
“From my perspective, it was a pride issue. He was not going to admit it was wrong,” Jared said of the policy.
That’s one thing Chief Pless seems to agree with.
“It’s a power struggle,” he said.
Adding to the dynamic, Jared Pless’ father — and Chief Pless’ brother — is Mark Pless, a former county commissioner now serving as a state legislator. Mark Pless has taken up the mantle of his son’s fight.
“As a legislator, it disturbs me because we don’t know if this is an isolated incident,” said Mark Pless, a Republican. “We need to protect workers being burdened by employers with something they can’t accomplish.”
It’s not the first time the Pless brothers have clashed. Both are known as strong-willed men. Mark Pless said his brother has crossed the line by imposing an over-the-top standard.
“He is going to an extreme,” Mark Pless said. “It’s always been his way or the highway way, and he’s not going to back down.”
Chief Pless said the policy was decided by the fire department’s board of directors, however, and has to be followed.
“You got to be fair to everyone. You got to treat everybody the same. You can’t make exemptions for one and not everybody,” Chief Pless said.
Can you require a test?
The CDC says that a negative test should not be required for employees to return to work. If someone has tested positive but never develops symptoms, they can safely return to work after 10 days, according to the CDC.
Likewise, however, it is not illegal to require a test if the employee’s presence could pose a threat to others in the workplace, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Chief Pless noted that 75 percent of the fire department’s calls are medical calls, and they often beat the ambulance to homes. But the policy is also aimed at protecting other firefighters from being sidelined as close contacts.
“If we have to quarantine our paid staff, we would basically be out of business for two weeks, and there’d be nobody to respond to emergencies when needed,” he said.
The fire department requires someone who’s been quarantined as a close contact to get two negative tests seven days apart before coming back. The CDC recommends a 14-day quarantine, but there’s no guarantee they’re out of the woods by then given the outer limit of the incubation period.
“How do we know that on day 12 you don’t get it at that point, and by day 14 you are an asymptomatic carrier?” Chief Pless said.
For someone who’s actually tested positive, the fire department only requires one negative test to return to work.
Chain of events
The policy was created by the fire board in late November. Jared Pless was a few days into a two-week quarantine — due to his wife testing positive for COVID — when he got a text from Chief Pless telling him the new rules.
“I need documentation of two negative COVID tests seven days apart and written clearance from your doctor or the health department,” the text message said.
Despite having no symptoms, he went to get a test, and sure enough, it turned up positive. After 10 days passed, the health department told him that another test would be fruitless, and refused to give him one.
“They said, ‘We are not wasting another test on you because it’s beyond CDC guidelines,” Jared Pless said.
Chief Pless told his nephew to go to urgent care or CVS to get a test instead, and that the fire department would reimburse him for it.
“The science says they could still test positive for 90 days, but I could have taken that to the board and said, ‘It’s been so many days since he’s had symptoms,’ and a determination would have been made — and he’d more than likely have been back at work,” Chief Pless said.
Jared Pless refused, however. At the end of December, he got a final ultimatum via text that he had one week to get tested or “further action would be taken.”
“That’s when I knew he was going to fire me,” Jared Pless said.
Jared Pless got a letter from the Haywood County Health and Human Services Department the next day backing him up, and had his father Mark Pless take it to the fire station.
“You may share this letter with your employer if you choose to do so, as evidence of your release to return to work,” Haywood Public Health Director Garron Bradish wrote.
The stalemate remained in a holding pattern until last week, when Jared Pless got a termination notice. Chief Pless had waited to seek guidance from the fire department’s board of directors at its January meeting.
“They said to keep the policy the way it is,” Chief Pless said. “If someone refuses to follow the policy, that basically means you’ve resigned if you won’t do what the employer says.”
Being side-lined from the Center Pigeon fire department has been heartbreaking for Jared Pless.
“I’ll see the trucks go up the road, and hate not being able to go,” he said. “I hate missing fires.”
Ironically, Jared Pless was on call with the Cruso Fire Department one day when Center Pigeon needed assistance with a house fire. Despite being banned from Center Pigeon, he fought the fire as a member of the Cruso Department.
“I showed up with a tanker and worked that fire for four hours,” he said.
Since Jared Pless was a boy, he dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, who was a volunteer for Center Pigeon.
“Whenever he would go out on a fire, I wanted to go with him. I would stand in the front yard and watch them work,” Jared said. “As soon as I turned 16, I signed up to volunteer.”
By 18, he signed up to volunteer at the Cruso fire department, as well. At 19, he got a job at EMS in Cleveland County, where he met his wife and became a certified paramedic. He worked there six years before landing a full-time job at Center Pigeon two years ago.
“It was home for me,” Jared said of his local firehouse. “I don’t think you could ever comprehend how much the job means to me. It’s not about looking cool in a truck and running sirens up and down the road. It’s not about the adrenaline rush. It’s about going out and taking care of people who are relying on you when they can’t rely on anyone else.”
Jared isn’t the only firefighter at Center Pigeon caught up by the policy. Three volunteers who’ve gotten COVID have also refused to submit to a test in order to return.
One of them is Jared’s wife, who’s back to work as a paramedic in Cleveland County. The second is back at work at the hospital, and the third is back at work at Autumn Care.
That volunteer, despite having already returned to work at Autumn Care, was turned away when she showed up to a fire at her neighbor’s house.
“Her neighbor’s shed caught on fire and she walked across the yard with her turnout gear and the chief sent her back home,” Jared Pless said.
He fears there could be more who have concealed their possible exposure to COVID to avoid the fallout.
“They don’t want to go get tested because they saw me sit at home for two months,” he said.
Chief Pless said he doesn’t understand the refusal to at least get a test. But Jared Pless said it’s a matter of principle, calling it the final straw in an on-going pattern.
“There are multiple people who have been run off from that department time after time. The culture is created by the leadership and I am tired of being in that toxic environment,” he said. “I am not going to continue to play the game.”
However, Chief Pless said he can’t pick and choose which policies to follow, or wave policies because they don’t suit someone.
“What job can you dictate what the policies are?” Chief Pless said. “You work for your employer and you follow the rules whether you agree with them or not. If you don’t like them, there are other jobs out there.”
In the meantime, N.C. Rep. Mark Pless plans to look into the larger issue and has already had discussions with some fellow legislators.
“With this one, it happened to be my son, but otherwise would I have heard about it? I can’t fight for someone’s rights if I don’t know there’s a problem,” he said.