EAST CHICAGO, IN — Having used up all his sick time, city firefighter Eddie Rivera said he is losing about $1,300 in weekly pay starting this week due to his COVID-19 illness.
He said the East Chicago administration has not indicated to him or to the East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 that they will cover any COVID-19 sick leave costs for emergency personnel.
Rivera, a longtime firefighter, said the city is barring him from a return to work — even though he says he believes he’s no longer contagious with COVID-19 and has been cleared by his doctor. He continues to repeatedly test positive despite having little to no symptoms.
“My sense of taste and smell are back, but they’re different. I still get a little short-winded but my doctor basically said those are residual effects that could last months. But they pulled me off pay roll last week (Tuesday),” Rivera said. “(The city) is using the CARES Act to pay for masks and cleaning supplies, but not to reimburse for our leave. They are choosing not to file (a claim) for us.”
Tom Hanify, president of the Indiana Professional Firefighters Union, said Wednesday most fire departments across the state are not making fire and police personnel use up their sick time if there is documentation they were infected in the line of duty.
He said he is perplexed that the city of East Chicago appears to be going against the grain of most other municipalities in Indiana.
“How is it that a hard core Democrat town isn’t taking care of their guys?” Hanify said.
Hanify said the Indianapolis Fire Department is not forcing its firefighters to use sick time if they contract COVID-19 “in the line of duty.”
“Let’s say I show up at the firehouse, and (a firefighter) comes down with COVID-19 and I get it, my Indianapolis Fire Department would say I’m covered, and that was in the line of duty,” Hanify said. “I wouldn’t lose sick time or my personal time off,” he said.
Health of all employees
Carla Morgan, city attorney, declined to comment on Rivera’s health and said they cannot confirm or deny the COVID-19 status of any specific employee, citing HIPAA privacy laws.
The CDC’s website states employers should not require sick employees to provide a negative test result to return to work. But Morgan said the CDC has also allowed local governments to adopt more protective policies, so the city of East Chicago requires a negative test due to the risk of transmission of other employees.
“We must consider the health of all employees and residents, and thus will not knowingly expose employees to a confirmed COVID-19 case,” she said.
Morgan said the city questions why the union criticized the city for allowing asymptomatic firefighters to return to the job while awaiting rest results, yet also criticized the city for a policy that disallows employees from returning to work while positive for the virus.
Rivera said his main issue is not with being off work; it’s not getting paid while his household bills are stacking up.
Morgan did not directly answer questions from The Times regarding the city’s sick time policy as it pertains to those ill with COVID.
Station 4 infected
He said an East Chicago firefighter in Station 4 notified the city administration Sept. 29 he was exposed to COVID-19 by his wife, who tested positive, but the city allowed him to continue working while he awaited test results, per emergency personnel CDC guidelines.
Union Chief Dave Mata said the city should have proactively had that firefighter stay home while he awaited test results. Now, Rivera has been exposed and is no longer on payroll due to these repeated positive test results, he said.
“Every firefighter who (subsequently) tested positive after that came from the same firehouse. (The city) can’t dance around this one,” Mata said.
Due to suspected exposures, Rivera and other Station 4 firefighters were subsequently tested for COVID-19 by the East Chicago Health Department on Oct. 2, Rivera said.
“Those results didn’t come back until after 10 days later. I started feeling off on the 6th and 7th, so I took a second test on my own (at Medic Express in Hammond) and those results came back faster. I was positive and continued calling off,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s subsequent tests all came back positive, he said.
“I’ve taken six tests this month, trying to get a negative result. Now the medical clinic says I have to wait at least a month to get another,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the East Chicago Health Department recently offered to test him this Friday, but Rivera fears it will trigger another positive result, further delaying his return to the payroll.
This past Tuesday, Rivera said he was officially taken off the payroll after utilizing all his available sick time.
Rivera said that because he has been cleared by a medical professional to return to work, he cannot seek COVID-19 disability pay through his insurance.
The CDC says a person can be around others when it’s been 10 days since symptoms first appeared; they have been fever-free for 24 hours without medication; and other symptoms are improving.
Rivera said he is still dealing with shortness of breath when exerting himself and his sense of taste and smell are returning to a new normal. He said he suffered from flu-like symptoms early on in his diagnosis: Body aches, difficulty breathing, and headaches. He never had a fever, he said.
The CDC has said loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months post-recovery “and need not delay the end of isolation.”
Rivera, an outspoken union member, said in the last year, he’s ruffled the feathers of Mayor Anthony Copeland’s administration over Copeland’s controversial shift changes and other, alleged retaliation tactics because the fire union did not back Mayor Anthony Copeland in the last election.
To cover unpaid sick days, Rivera said he asked Chief Anthony Serna recently if he could move his planned vacation in late November to now, instead of losing pay due to being sidelined from work with repeat positive coronavirus test.
Rivera said Serna told him no.
“One-hundred percent, I believe this is retaliation,” Rivera said.
The CDC has provided quarantine guidance based on current knowledge of the virus and how it sheds from the system post-infection. However, the World Health Organization and CDC has also said new information continues to emerge on a near daily basis, so very little is definitively known about COVID-19’s ability to transmit weeks after infection and symptoms have lessened.
East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 on Monday passed a ‘vote of no confidence’ in Serna amid escalating tensions between the union and City Hall.
Copeland said the vote was “unwarranted” and exhibits a disrespect for the residents of East Chicago “by providing divisive commentary during a time when we all need to work together to keep safe.”
Union members have said they take issue with the department’s unprecedented implementation of eight-hour rotating swing schedules, its COVID-19 policy and safety protocols, its overall direction under Serna’s leadership.
Recently, Mata also accused Serna of “retaliation” after beds were removed from an East Chicago Fire Department facility, to which Serna said was a safety precaution due to COVID-19.
“It is clear that there are some people who are angry, and tensions are high. Chief Serna and I are working to balance the needs of our employees and the finances of the city,” Copeland said in a statement. “Administrative control over that task can sometimes be unpopular. Be assured, however, that under Chief Serna’s leadership, the East Chicago Fire Department has maintained more than satisfactory staffing levels, fully functioning fire suppression equipment and apparatus, and sufficient personal protective gear.”
From The Chinook Observer