Gilbert’s police officers and firefighters have seen a 53 percent increase – or 68 new cases – in COVID-19 among their ranks in the past month for a total of 129 cases since April.
With the number of cases expected to be on par with December or higher this month, Town Council last week unanimously voted to continue to provide employees up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for COVID-19 even though the federal mandate expired Dec. 31.
The coverage was provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which took effect April 1. Congress did not take action to extend it into 2021.
“Just like you are seeing in the state, just like what you are seeing in the county, just like what you are seeing across the country, we are seeing a significant increase in positive COVID cases,” said Nathan Williams, Gilbert’s chief people officer.
“I’m highlighting public safety because our first responders unfortunately are often times victims of this the most because of the nature of their work and the fact that they are out there in the field,” he said. “They’re working with sick individuals who are potentially infected individuals.”
Overall, from April to Jan. 5, a total 170 town employees have been stricken by the virus, according to Williams.
He added staff felt if the COVID leave was not extended, it might cause some infected or sick employees to come to work, putting the public and other employees at risk.
And, because the town is self-insured, removal of the leave would lead to an increase in work comp claims due to at-work exposure, Williams said.
Each claim costs the town $1,000 to initiate even if it is denied.
He said Gilbert opted not to follow what many neighboring municipalities have done, which was to front-load the 80 hours of sick leave by depositing it into their employees’ leave banks.
“We felt this was not the most conservative or fiscally responsible approach because it puts you in the position of potentially have to pay out that leave in the case of retirement or potentially carry over that leave without intending to,” Williams explained.
Under the town’s plan, employees will have to apply for the leave and provide documentation.
Had the town front-loaded the hours, it would have come to 108,000 hours for 1,350 eligible employees, Williams said.
To date, a total of 297 employees have used some COVID sick leave, amounting to 16,069 hours, less than 15 percent of the possible leave that would have been banked had the town gone with the front-loaded approach.
Councilwoman Aimee Yentes asked if there was a sunset date for the policy.
Williams said January was anticipated to be one of the worst in term of case number for the town but didn’t see the extension continuing to the end of the calendar year.
“As soon as we start to see a wider deployment of the vaccine and a drop in positive cases especially amongst our personnel who are still working out in the field, public safety, in particular, as well as parks and public works, we can then start to wind this program down and close it out,” Town Manager Patrick Banger said.
Councilman Jared Taylor, who was attending his last Council meeting remotely because he was recovering from COVID-19, asked if the town’s available share of the CARES Act money can fund the sick leave and if so it would be an appropriate use.
“Yes, it would be if the Council choses to,” Banger responded. “Initially the federal government had made funds available to reimburse employers who were required to provide this sick leave. They then changed that to they would not reimburse public-sector employers for that but we did receive COVID dollars through the governor’s office, which the CARES Act Subcommittee has allocated in various ways and this would be an expense that they could use some of those CARE Act dollars to reimburse for.”
Yentes, who heads the subcommittee, said a meeting was to be scheduled soon and will present the issue for consideration.