Syene and Clayton roads fire station

Station No. 3 is the Fitchburg Fire Department’s newest addition, predominantly serving the eastern side of the city.

Any full-time Fitchburg firefighter who is diagnosed with COVID-19 and must isolate at home will get 96 hours of emergency sick leave.

The Common Council unanimously passed the sick leave measure at its Tuesday, April 14, meeting after two debates on the topic – whether how much sick leave all city first responders receive, and whether they all get the same amount of hours.

Alders decided all other full-time first responders who are city employees – police, dispatchers, public works maintenance workers, IT support staff and the city administrator – will get 72 hours of leave, with any differences needing to be made up by using accrued personal sick time. Hours will expire at the end of the year if not used.

Fitch-Rona EMS, which is governed by a three-municipality district, already had established 96 hours of emergency sick leave.

The city’s original proposal had been to provide 72 hours of sick leave for emergency personnel. Alders denied an additional amendment to provide police with 96 hours by a 5-3 vote.

Human resources manager Sarah Olson told the council she started with 72 hours because she was looking for a number that got close to 80, divisible by firefighters’ daily 24-hour shifts.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires employers to provide two weeks’ worth of sick leave for employees who contract COVID-19 and must quarantine due to exposure or care for a sick family member.

However, with demand for emergency first responders and health care workers higher than ever during the pandemic, both types of workers are exempt.

Olson said the city wanted to “go above and beyond” the federal requirements by providing emergency sick leave for its first responders, who are working with the public on a daily basis and therefore are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

“Our emergency responders are extremely important to the city – they’re out there on the front lines,” she said. “We wanted to provide a benefit to those emergency responders.”

The proposal of 72 hours drew criticism from the Fire Fighters Local 311 union and fire department chief Joe Pulvermacher, who all asked for an additional 24 hours to be added. Having only 72 hours would require firefighters to dip into their sick leave at a rate that other city employees wouldn’t, firefighter Jason Ladwig told the council.

Ladwig, the union representative to Local 311, said because full-time staff work 53 hours a week, getting 96 hours of emergency sick leave would mean firefighters still need to use 10 hours of personal sick leave to finish out two weeks. Having only 72 would require them to use 34 hours of sick leave.

Full-time Fitchburg police officers, meanwhile, work 75 hours every two weeks, so the 72-hour proposal would only require them to use three hours of their accrued sick pay.

“While 96 hours appears to be more than the others, it’s really not,” Ladwig said. “It equals out to the same in the end.”

Local 311 president Mahlon Mitchell told the council a firefighter’s first job is saving lives – and that they can’t protect others if they aren’t able to properly protect themselves.

“Hopefully, none of them have to use this emergency sick leave at all,” he said. “All we’re asking is something real simple, and that is to be treated like everyone else … and that is two weeks off.“So we have to provide for our families, and all we’re asking is that you can provide a little bit of certainty.”

Alders quickly agreed on the 96 hours, but they debated whether other first responders should receive the same amount.

Ald. Tom Clauder (Dist. 4), a former police officer, argued the fastest way to cause a morale problem is to have staff start comparing their benefits to one another, especially if others receive less.

With police, fire and EMS all working together on calls, they should receive the same amount of emergency sick leave hours, Clauder said. “Emergency responders are emergency responders … when they’re in the field, they’re all helping each other; they’re all responding together,” Clauder said.

Ald. Dorothy Krause (D-1) was quick to point out that while giving everyone 96 hours of emergency sick leave would be a form of equality, it wouldn’t be an equitable decision.

She argued that an equitable way to provide sick leave would be to do it based on whatever a city employee normally worked during a two-week period, instead of by hours. Providing 96 hours for all emergency responders would give other emergency personnel more than two weeks of paid leave and leave firefighters short.

“We don’t want to just give everyone the same amount; that does not bring about equity,” she said.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.​