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ALBANY, NY – The Public Employees Federation (PEF) filed a lawsuit on Jan. 15 against New York State and three state agencies, the Department of Civil Service (DCS), the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the Office of Mental Health (OMH), asserting that the state has irrationally and improperly deprived union members of their guaranteed right to paid COVID-19 quarantine leave.
In March 2020, the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations (GOER) issued a policy addressing mandatory or precautionary quarantine procedures. The policy states employees placed in mandatory quarantine by state or local health officials would be placed on leave with pay, without charge to accruals, for all workdays within a 14-calendar day quarantine period, limiting employees to 10 working days of paid leave.
Shortly after, the New York Legislature enacted Chapter 25 of the Laws of 2020, creating paid sick leave benefits for employees subject to quarantine, specifically stating employees “shall be provided with at least fourteen days of paid sick leave during any mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine.”
“Our lawsuit asserts that state employers have irrationally and improperly deprived our members of their guaranteed right to paid quarantine leave during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said PEF President Wayne Spence at a press conference in Albany on Friday. “The infection rate is higher than it’s ever been and people are probably going to have to quarantine again. For some insane reason, agency leaders and managers are bringing more and more workers back into the office and creating a vicious cycle of positive tests, mandatory quarantines, and most importantly – putting the health of my union’s members at risk.”
During the first surge of the pandemic, approximately 85 percent of PEF members were telecommuting successfully from their homes. With the second surge, 55 to 60 percent of PEF members have returned to work in the office, despite higher infection rates across the state.
“It’s ridiculous and ludicrous to ask state workers to come back to work when they demonstrated they can successfully telecommute,” Spence said. “The New York State workforce has been providing services since the beginning of this pandemic without a hiccup. PEF has shown that telecommuting works. We followed the science and flattened the curve.”
The lawsuit includes petitioners from DOCCS and OMH, including a teacher, a social worker, a parole officer and an offender rehabilitation coordinator.
Attempts to seek remedy outside of the courts through letters to GOER and agency commissioners met with silence, Spence told reporters.
“We heard crickets,” Spence said. “Even when we moved it up, we heard nothing. That silence tells me that the state is telling me and my members to go kick rocks. We feel confident if a judge really looks at what we’re saying, based on a clear reading of the statute, they will side with us.”