Putnam legislators question sheriff’s response
The Putnam County Sheriff’s Department practices for deputies exposed to COVID-19 has become the latest source of friction between Sheriff Robert Langley Jr. and the county Legislature.
Legislators suggested that Langley is ignoring county policy on dealing with the exposure to COVID-19 by employees, although when pressed for a copy of the county policy, the county attorney said there isn’t one.
The issue arose during the Dec. 8 meeting of the Legislature’s Protective Services Committee, held by audio connection because of pandemic restrictions. Legislator Neal Sullivan, who represents parts of Carmel and Mahopac, asked Langley how many deputies have been quarantined because of exposure to the virus, and how many work hours have been lost. “What’s the policy you follow?” he said.
Langley responded that “we require that a member who has had direct exposure get tested immediately.” He also told Sullivan that he did not have the number of hours of COVID-related leave taken by deputies.
That response prompted the Legislature’s Personnel Committee to call a meeting that convened by audio connection on Dec. 15 at the request of County Attorney Jennifer Bumgarner. Langley told Ginny Nacerino, the Patterson legislator who chairs the committee, that he could not attend.
Bumgarner told the Personnel Committee that Langley had set off alarms when he said that deputies were immediately tested. She said Dr. Michael Nesheiwat, the health commissioner, and Kathleen Percacciolo, the county’s top public health nurse, said testing immediately after a suspected exposure “is useless, because there’s an incubation period” before the virus is detectable.
In emails and a phone call to The Current this week, Langley said there had been a miscommunication during the Dec. 8 meeting and that testing of his employees does take place only after a waiting period.
“We quarantine anyone who has had a direct exposure,” he said. “After the allotted time frame, between Days 5 and 8, they are tested, depending on when they can get to a testing site. We follow the proper guidelines set forth by both federal and state [agencies] to ensure we are part of the solution, not part of the problem.” He also said that during quarantine, the staff members “are at home. We do have a duty to protect the public. By quarantining at home we make sure we are stopping the spread.”
Langley said his comment to the Protective Services Committee “was not intended to be interpreted the way it may have come out” and may have been complicated by the sometimes-shaky audio connection that night.
He said he was scheduled to meet with Bumgarner and others on Jan. 13.
At the Dec. 15 Personnel Committee meeting, legislators’ concerns extended beyond testing to include the Sheriff’s Department policy on COVID-19 leave.
Bumgarner said its personnel aren’t using sick time for COVID-19 and that the list of deputies and corrections officers who have taken leave because of suspected exposure “is extensive. I’m not clear why so many people are going on leave when it’s not for mandated quarantine” ordered by the Health Department, she said.
Percacciolo said that following exposure, a county employee must quarantine for 14 days but that because Sheriff’s Department personnel are considered essential workers “they should be coming to work wearing their masks, social distancing, taking their temperatures twice a day” and going between their homes and their jobs without stopping en route.
“That’s the quarantine,” she said. “We can’t continue services without the essential employees.” However, she added, “if they become symptomatic, they have to go home. They cannot work if symptomatic.”
Bumgarner mentioned a case in the Bureau of Emergency Services in which an employee who tested positive worked two shifts, exposing six colleagues.
“We obviously can’t send six dispatchers home and figure out what to do without them,” she said. “So, they’re required to come to work as long as they stay asymptomatic.”
One dispatcher protested, Bumgarner continued, “and we basically said: ‘You don’t have a choice. You are required to come back to work. If you don’t, we’ll take whatever remedies we have available to us.’”
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown and serves on the Personnel Committee, questioned that approach. “Wouldn’t it be in the best interests of our county departments, and world as a whole,” for an employee who had been exposed “to not go out” to work? She noted that a Bureau of Emergency Services employee died of COVID-19 complications.
Nacerino, though, argued that, “as a county, we all march to the same rules.”
Both Bumgarner and Nacerino invoked higher authorities, such as the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
The act requires employers to provide two weeks (80 hours) of paid sick leave to employees in quarantine for COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms and awaiting a diagnosis. It allows pay to be reduced by a third if the employee takes leave to care for someone in quarantine or for a child whose school has closed. It also says that employers must give parents up to 10 additional weeks.
FFCRA allows local governments to exclude emergency responders.
“It’s federal and state laws that govern how we deal with our employees,” who must “be paid according to the law,” Bumgarner said. “If taking time off, they can’t be overpaid.” If the Sheriff’s Department was paying employees a full salary for COVID leave, “it’s just not appropriate. It’s not correct.”
(The federal law, however, does not appear to force an employer to cut salaries by a third for COVID-19 leave; it instead instructs employers to pay at least that much. Nor does it appear to limit paid COVID-related time off to a maximum of 80 hours.)
Costs were on the minds of legislators Dec. 15. Nacerino expressed disappointment at Langley’s absence for the discussion of “this very egregious” matter. “Not only does it impact the health and welfare of employees,” she said, “it has a potential fiscal impact as well.”
Sullivan remarked that “it’s a possible waste of taxpayers’ money, because we’re not following the proper policies and procedures.”
Nacerino also blamed Langley. “The culpability lies with the administration” of the Sheriff’s Department, she said. “And if there is a correction that needs to be corrected, we need to correct it swiftly.”
Bumgarner charged that the Sheriff’s Department “granted leave to people when they weren’t entitled to it.”
Montgomery, who is the only Democrat on the nine-person Legislature, objected. “It feels like we’re just out to get these deputies and the Sheriff’s Department,” she said. “We have a lot of exposure [in Putnam] to COVID-19” and the deputies “are putting their lives on the line.” She asked Bumgarner to provide the documents that detail the county’s COVID-19 leave policy.
“There is no documentation,” Bumgarner replied. “We deal with every single exposure by one of our employees on a case-by-case basis.”