Court Upholds Award Of Retroactive Sick Leave Benefits For COs

On March 18, 2020, Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) was signed into law, which created emergency paid leave benefits in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Its provisions became effective on April 2, 2020, and expired on December 31, 2020. The FFCRA provided eligible employees who were unable to work for reasons related to COVID-19 with up to 80 hours of emergency paid time off to use for a “qualifying reason” related to COVID-19 prior to using their own available paid leave benefits. Employees could qualify for leave if they were in quarantine, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis, or caring for someone in quarantine or a child whose school or daycare was closed due to COVID-19.

The federal statute also permitted employers to exempt “emergency responders” from leave benefits in recognition of the fact that essential services could not be discontinued or disrupted by a lack of available employees. Correctional officers were included within the statute’s definition of “emergency responders.”

Berks County chose to exclude jail employees from the leave provisions of the FFCRA to ensure sufficient staff for around-the-clock operations. Jail employees remained eligible to use accrued paid leave benefits or unpaid leave for personal illness. Additionally, the County provided administrative leave to jail employees with confirmed exposure to a colleague who tested positive for COVID-19.

Jail employees began to file grievances which challenged the County’s decision to charge COVID-19 related absences against their available sick time or accrued leave time to cover their absence from work. Once the interest arbitration hearings commenced, Local 429 presented its issues in dispute, which included a proposal for the County to provide 80 hours of retroactive paid leave to cover COVID-19 related absences. Local 429’s proposal was identical to the leave provided by the FFCRA.

The panel of arbitrators issued its final opinion and award on December 2, 2021, which adopted Local 429’s proposal and required the County to provide 80 hours of paid leave to jail employees for absences related to COVID-19 retroactive to March 18, 2020, and through the expiration of the FFCRA on December 31, 2020.

The County-appointed arbitrator dissented to that portion of the award, contending that the panel majority had exceeded its authority and jurisdiction by nullifying the statutory right and managerial prerogative of the County to exempt emergency responders from providing sick leave under the FFCRA.

The County filed its petition requesting the trial court to strike that portion of the award. The trial court denied the petition, finding that the County waived its right to argue that FFCRA benefits were a non-bargainable matter of managerial prerogative by allowing that issue to be litigated during the arbitration.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. While the Court noted that it could not verify from the record whether the County had ever asserted during the arbitration that FFCRA leave benefits were a non-bargainable matter of managerial prerogative, it noted that the dissenting opinion in the award directly dealt with the issue and that correspondence between the parties prior to the interest arbitration proceedings clearly advised Local 429 that the County was not providing FFCRA benefits to any essential employee.

Although the Court determined that the County did not waive its argument, it held that the award, which was issued long after the FFCRA provisions expired, did not unduly infringe upon the County’s managerial prerogatives not to disrupt essential services or its statutory rights. Rather, the award simply provided paid leave benefits to jail employees who had taken leave due to COVID-19. Paid leave, whether in the form of vacation, personal, or sick, is indisputably a mandatory subject of bargaining which affects the wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment and, therefore, is a matter within the jurisdiction and authority of the interest arbitration panel.

County of Berks v. Teamsters Local 429, 2023 WL 8290257 (Cmwlth. Ct.).

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Also in the April 2024 issue:

  • City Not Liable To Victims Of Retired Police K-9 Attack
  • Female Firefighter Applicant Unsuccessfully Challenges Physical Test As Discriminatory
  • Officer Working Private Traffic Control Detail Jointly Employed For Purposes Of Workers’ Compensation
  • Employer Discriminatorily Terminated Former Union President
  • Deputy’s Retaliation Claim To Proceed After Involvement In Elected Official’s Custody Dispute
  • Sexual Harassment Claims By Male And Female Correctional Officers Can Proceed
  • Officer Convicted For Failing To Prevent Assault During Investigation
  • Correctional Officer’s Termination Upheld After Discovery Of Illicit Relationship With A Former Inmate
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