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Workers absent in storm may pay

More than 20 percent of Pinellas County Health Department employees told to work in shelters during Hurricane Charley didn't show or left early, prompting a disciplinary review by the department, officials said Wednesday.

One worker has resigned, and four more have been told they may be fired, health department officials said late Wednesday. Department officials have decided not to take action against 41 of the 66 employees.

The public needs to be able to count on public health employees, and not working at the shelters is a serious problem, said department director Dr. John Heilman.

"The health care system depends on people showing up and doing what they're supposed to do," he said. "If they don't, we're in deep trouble."

About 12 special needs shelters opened during Charley to care for people with medical problems or other needs that require special attention. The health department staffs those shelters, and called about 300 people in to work as the storm threatened Tampa Bay.

As it turned out, Charley struck farther south, and the shelters had no shortage of staffers. In fact, the department had far more employees there then were needed, Heilman said.

Most of those who didn't report had problems such as illness or caring for children or elderly parents, but Heilman said he thinks a few simply refused to go.

"We can't just ignore the fact we had so many employees who decided not to participate," he said. "All signed up to be public employees with the knowledge that they staff emergency shelters."

But Heilman also said the department needs to improve communications among its staff when the shelters are opened. Information about who could work or who was having difficulties wasn't always passed along to the correct supervisor, he said.

Since then, the department has been trying to sort out who had an excusable absence.

"We've spent untold hours on this process already," he said.

Heilman said most employees did report to the shelters to help those in need. "Our employees did show up, by and large, and did their jobs in a very professional way," he said.

Two employees contacted by the Times who were among the 66 being reviewed by the department declined to comment for this story.

Pinellas is not the only health department considering action against its employees. The health departments in Indian River and St. Lucie counties also are considering disciplinary action against employees who didn't work at shelters during Hurricane Frances, according to news reports.

In Pinellas, employees are told before they take the job, and again during orientation, that they are expected to work at the shelters, Heilman said. Workers can get an exemption in advance to be relieved of shelter duty. Exemptions include people with disabilities or parents of children younger than 6 who are single or married to someone who also must work in emergencies, such as a firefighter or police officer.

Heilman said he's not worried about hurting morale by disciplining or firing some employees.

"I think morale among the people who showed up is very high," he said. "I think the only damage to morale is to fail to take action for people who didn't show up."

Of the 66 employees, 41 will have no action taken against them. Six were reprimanded, eight will receive information on the correct way to report to a shelter and one resigned. Four have been sent letters proposing that they be fired and scheduling meetings with Heilman to plead their case. Another employee was sent a similar letter proposing a five-day suspension without pay. Department officials are also reviewing five more cases.

The department has not yet reviewed absences during Hurricane Frances, Heilman said.