Aug. 20—NORWICH — The city’s paid firefighters union has filed a grievance with the state Labor Relations Board challenging the city’s requirement that firefighters use personal accrued time off if they are exposed to the COVID-19 virus on the job.
The Norwich Fire Fighters Local 892 has been at odds with city administrative leaders over how on-the-job exposures have been treated since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, current union President Michael Podzaline said Thursday. The union failed to resolve the complaint through the internal grievance process, and Podzaline said a February settlement on a related issue of firefighters who are found to have high temperatures when reporting to work did not resolve all the issues.
The union has filed a grievance with the state Labor Relations Board that combines nearly a dozen examples of firefighters who were exposed to the coronavirus and forced to quarantine or contracted the virus through an exposure at work. A closed-door hearing on the grievance is scheduled for Sept. 1 at City Hall.
City Manager John Salomone and Norwich Fire Chief Tracy Montoya declined to comment on the issue, citing the pending complaint, called a “Motion of Prohibitive Practices,” filed with the state Department of Labor.
Podzaline stressed that the union is not seeking financial compensation from the city for the personal accrued time firefighters have used for coronavirus exposure since the pandemic hit in March 2020. But the union is asking that the city from now on place exposed firefighters on administrative leave or injury leave and to use part of the nearly $30 million in federal American Rescue Plan grants to restore the vacation, personal and sick time they have lost.
He estimated Norwich firefighters have had 112 coronavirus exposures or COVID-19 illnesses since the pandemic began, with some of those being firefighters who “did the right thing” and stayed home rather than expose fellow firefighters after an exposure.
Podzaline read a two-page strongly worded statement to the City Council on Monday during a public forum seeking input on how the city should use the broad-based federal grant money. Salomone has proposed a spending plan for the first $9 million of the $14.4 million the city has received in the first year.
Podzaline said firefighters have faced “hundreds” of possible exposures through daily interactions with Norwich residents or visitors while on emergency calls. He described to the council one case in which a firefighter became ill and tested positive for the virus a few days after performing CPR on an unresponsive patient. He called it “a safe bet” that the firefighter became ill because of that incident.
“This firefighter was then forced by departmental policy to use their own personal time to quarantine out of work from an illness that in all probability was received on the job in the act of performing lifesaving interventions on a resident of this city,” Podzaline said. “In addition, remember that during the early months of the pandemic, personal protective equipment that was meant to be one-time use was being used multiple times on multiple incidents by firefighters.”
He also complained that Salomone chose not to seek federal CARES Act grant funding that would have reimbursed the city and front-line workers for pandemic-related expenses, “to further exacerbate our frustration,” Podzaline said. The city has used CARES Act grants to pay for some employee-related expenses, including the police officer stationed at City Hall to ensure visitors are wearing masks, city officials have said in the past.
“Now, here you sit in front of all of us discussing ways the city should spend $30 million of American Rescue Plan funding,” Podzaline said to the City Council on Monday.
He said Page 4,184 of the American Rescue Plan document lists payroll expenses for public safety and public health workers as eligible uses for ARP funding.
In the initial internal grievance filed on Jan. 19, 2021, the union merged five previous grievances from firefighters with three new cases. Additional specific cases have been added to the new grievance, Podzaline said.
Three cases involved a chain reaction of exposures. One firefighter began to experience COVID-19 symptoms at work and had worked closely with a second firefighter, who then had to quarantine and later tested positive for the virus that causes the disease. A third firefighter had worked closely with the second firefighter and also tested positive.
Podzaline estimated the entire cost to the city to provide paid administrative leave or injury leave for quarantine would be about $50,000. But since the city failed to comply with the union’s request, the city also will now have to pay legal fees to fight the state labor complaint.