‘It’s not OK’: Personnel policies failing virus-exposed frontline workers
Imagine being a Navajo Nation essential employee who has been exposed to or contracted COVID-19 in the line of duty and all you’re trying to do is quarantine and take care of yourself and your family.
Imagine that during this time when you most need support you are faced with bureaucratic red tape and hostile supervisors who, instead of helping, are making matters worse.
That was the picture painted by delegates at last Thursday’s Naabik’iyati Committee meeting who said the Department of Personnel’s policies are failing essential employees, while non-essential employees are at home collecting administrative leave scot-free.
When they become ill with COVID-19, some frontline employees are reporting to delegates that they have been forced to use their own sick and annual leave to cover their absence.
In response, on June 3, the Health, Education and Human Services Committee passed a bill (No. 122-20, Resolution HEHSCJN-08-20) to amend the Nation’s personnel policy to provide 120 hours of leave to employees who been exposed to or have tested positive for COVID-19, or who need to care for a family member who has the virus.
HEHSC Chairman Daniel Tso said after hearing many complaints from essential employees, the COVID-19-related leave bill was developed so that people would not have to tap into their leave or go on leave without pay to take care of themselves or others.
“Some employees were told if they were not going to be at work to use their annual leave, which the committee thought was unreasonable,” he said.
However, according to several delegates, the bill intended to help employees has imposed further restrictions by the Department of Personnel Management and created hardship for many.
Tso said Division of Human Resources Director Perphelia Fowler and her DPM team were the ones that put the bill together.
“The AG and legislative counsel were told to coordinate with DPM to come up with this,” said Tso.
Fowler did not respond to this reporter’s request for comment and the DPM’s COVID-19 leave policy.
‘Which policy supersedes?’
DPM Human Resources Director Tonia Becenti, who presented to delegates on behalf of Fowler, explained while the quarantine for someone who is exposed or is positive for COVID-19 is 14 days, the HEHSC bill allows for an additional week if the illness is prolonged, just to make sure an employee is no longer positive.
However, in many cases, that is not enough time because many COVID-19 illnesses go far beyond the maximum 120-hour leave, said Delegate Vince James.
Per the legislation, after 120 hours, if an employee has not recovered from COVID-19, they must use accrued annual or sick leave, or be approved for leave without pay or seek family medical leave, which James says sends them back to Square One.
Becenti clarified that in order to receive the 120-day COVID-19 leave employees need to make a written request to their supervisor. Once the leave is granted, the employees cannot come back to work unless they have a doctor’s note saying they are no longer positive, she said.
Becenti confirmed that if employees need to go beyond the 120-day leave, they need to notify their supervisor and can apply for short-term disability or Workman’s Compensation in addition to family medical leave.
Several delegates said the legislation has caused confusion and hardship because it contradicts the president’s office’s state of emergency order that closed government offices and granted nonessential employees administrative leave for its duration.
“We are forcing our employees to use up their sick leave and annual leave and on top of that we have an executive order that says the president has issued administrative leave,” said Delegate Otto Tso. “They should not be using any of their sick leave or annual leave whatsoever.”
“Which policy supersedes the other?” asked James. “It all comes back to DPM. Who is actually in control?”
James said he does not understand why the HEHSC leave bill was put in place.
“It should have been a part of the executive order,” he said. “Everything should be under administrative leave.”
The June 3 bill is also not retroactive and does not address those essential employees who were asked to use their sick or annual leave in the months prior to June, he said.
“What do we do with the Navajo Nation employees who were exposed to COVID-19 back in March, April, and May?” he asked. “This legislation does not cover them. How do we replenish those individuals who were forced by their supervisor or DPM to start using their sick leave and annual leave, which in reality was supposed to be administrative leave? How do we reimburse those leaves?”
To add insult to injury, Vince says many employees who were exposed to COVID-19 on the job have been denied the special duty pay because they had to quarantine at home.
“The agreement was that they have to be at the work site in order to get hazard pay,” he said.
Meanwhile, other workers who were not exposed to COVID-19 were able to draw hazard pay.
“It’s not accommodating the Navajo Nation frontline workers,” said James. “It’s not OK.”
Fear of retaliation
Otto Tso said employees don’t want to say anything publicly because they are afraid of retaliation. He said even his own family members are scared to talk because they’ve been told by their supervisors not to break the chain of command.
“We have employees who tell us that there’s dysfunction that goes on in programs,” said Otto Tso.
James suggested that once an employee tests positive for COVID-19, it should be entered into the DPM system and there should be no further questions or limitations put on their recovery because of leave policies or other burdensome requirements for documentation.
He said that while he and other delegates have received complaints from departments, the majority he has received have come from the Division of Public Safety, where many employees were exposed to COVID-19 on the job, especially early in the pandemic when they had no personal protective equipment.
“If all of the PPE gears were there in the first place, they most likely wouldn’t have been exposed,” he said.
“In some of these departments, including corrections, police departments, social services, and senior centers, those frontline workers were practically out there with no protection,” said James. “Nothing was put in their budget for PPE until just recently. Because of this situation, our Navajo employees were exposed to COVID-19.”
Furthermore, some employees who are still recovering are now being told they have to apply for family medical leave, but the process to qualify is lengthy and employees fear a gap in pay, which could put them at risk financially.
James said because of the bill, some employees are now being told if they don’t want to apply for family medical leave, they have to exhaust their sick and annual leave.
“You’re forcing them by saying, ‘if you want to get paid, you need to use your leave,’” he said.
James said the miscommunications and misinterpretations about the personnel policies are hurting many Navajo families, who are getting the run-around when they should be taken care of by their employer.
Becenti responded that it appeared that many of the employee concerns regarding leave that were being brought up had not come to DPM, but those individuals that did come to DPM prior to June 3 were advised to use administrative leave prior to sick or annual leave.
She clarified that DPM has been also telling department human resources and supervisors to use administrative leave before they start using sick leave or annual leave.
“We always advised them to use admin leave as long as this executive order is in place for anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” she said. “DPM does not tell supervisors to use sick or annual leave.”
Becenti explained that regardless of their situation all Navajo Nation employees should be being paid whether they are working or not, essential or not, and if they are not getting paid they need to let DPM know immediately.
James indicated that there is clearly a communication breakdown between DPM and department supervisors if the employees have been reaching out to delegates saying that they’ve been forced to use their sick or annual leave.
“We pay you a salary to get this information relayed out to the division directors and program managers,” said Tso. “It’s the responsibility of these programs! It’s an executive branch function!”
PPE was unavailable
Becenti said that all division directors have been advised to work with their supervisors and program managers to obtain PPE for their employees, but that it was a challenge to get supplies early on in the pandemic.
“We can’t always rely on our employer to provide everything for us,” said Becenti. “We have to try to help in any way we can because of the shortages. As employees we have to do our part, whether we make our own masks or bring our own hand sanitizers.”
“I don’t agree with that,” said Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton. “I think your statement is inappropriate and I think that mentality needs to change.
“I believe that during this pandemic if you’re going to ask employees to report to work, you should have the necessary equipment to keep them safe,” she said. “If you don’t have that equipment, then I don’t think we have the right to ask our Navajo Nation employees to report to work.”
Charles-Newton says she does not understand how delegates continue to hear from employees who don’t have proper PPE gear when delegates have been told by division directors that the employees have received PPE.
She asked why Fowler was not presenting to the committee.
“As Council, we’re painted this nice picture by the executive branch directors, that everything is good, that the employees are taken care of,” said Charles-Newton.
She said because of all of the uncertainties, many employees are afraid to return to work.
“Are you currently implementing a plan for opening up offices for services that are provided to our Navajo people?” asked Charles-Newton.
Becenti responded that the executive branch’s “return to work policy” is currently under review and will soon be released by the president’s office.
“We are being advised by our division directors that we will be coming back in phases and that each department should be working on a pre-occupancy plan on how to phase employees back in,” said Becenti.
This will likely include plans for staggered and flex scheduling and telecommuting, especially for people with underlying health conditions.
“Each department should be working on this,” she said.
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