By Brett Yates
Days after Congress allowed a national paid sick leave mandate for private- and public-sector workers affected by Covid-19 to expire, Rutland City’s Board of Aldermen approved new rules ensuring continued coverage for local municipal employees through at least March 31. Further extensions may occur, depending on “how everything is going” with the pandemic, according to City Attorney Matt Bloomer, who presented the policy at a Jan. 4 meeting.
In March 2020, President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which forced medium-sized companies and local governments to supplement employees’ preexisting sick leave with two additional weeks of compensated time off for coronavirus-related absences. After reviewing public health guidance from the CDC and the state of Vermont, Rutland City officials used their own discretion to administer the federal policy with broadened eligibility criteria that allowed municipal workers to quarantine even after secondhand exposures.
On Dec. 31, the FFCRA expired, following an act of Congress that renewed its associated tax credits for businesses that continue voluntarily to offer paid Covid-19 leave for the first three months of 2021. With the disappearance of the federal mandate, Bloomer worked to codify Rutland’s self-imposed extension of the emergency paid leave program with the support of Mayor David Allaire.
Under the city’s rules, municipal workers can stay home without penalty for 10 business days when experiencing flu-like symptoms, caring for a child during a school closure or for a loved one stricken by coronavirus, or waiting for test results after a (generously defined) “close contact.” The program does not grant a new term of paid time off to workers who already used their Covid-19 leave in 2020; those facing a second bout of coronavirus-related difficulties will have to use their standard sick leave and vacation time before entering a state of “negative accrual,” if necessary.
The policy lays out self-reporting guidelines for potentially infected employees and proposes “flexible work arrangements” where telecommuting is viable. Last year, the city reached an agreement with Rutland Regional Hospital to provide testing for municipal workers and advice on when they might return safely to their jobs.
Even under the FFCRA, municipal governments received no federal reimbursement for paying out Covid-19 leave. But in Bloomer’s telling, Mayor Allaire and Human Resources Director Jody Breault “thought it would be wise” to preserve the program, which discourages employees from showing up to work with the virus, which, if spread, might shut down essential government operations.
Stressing the value of prompt implementation, Bloomer delivered a draft of the leave extension to the Board of Aldermen only hours before its biweekly meeting, without any prior negotiation with the municipal workers’ unions. After some debate, the legislators voted unanimously in the policy’s favor, albeit with the provision, suggested by Alderman Sam Gorruso, that Bloomer add a disclaimer “holding the city harmless” in case a coronavirus outbreak should occur among its workforce in spite of the recommended precautions.