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Fired Largo worker denied compensation

James Gesicki, a 30-year city employee fired for not showing up for work the day Hurricane Charley was expected to hit the area, was denied unemployment compensation after the city appealed his benefits.

As a spray technician in the public works department, Gesicki, 61, was classified as a primary responder in emergencies and was terminated Aug. 18 after he decided to stay with his 81-year-old mother, Catherine, at his Spring Hill home during the storm.

After a Dec. 10 hearing that Gesicki chose not to attend, an unemployment compensation appeals referee decided that he should not receive benefits because he was fired for misconduct, showing an "intentional disregard" for his duties to the city.

"Although ordinarily the claimant's actions would be considered an isolated incidence of poor judgment, because the claimant was an emergency response worker, he is held to a higher threshold of responsibility," the appeals referee wrote.

Gesicki, who recently repaid the $1,925 in unemployment compensation he had received, said he chose not to pursue the claim because he was stressed and intimidated by the process and the prospect of future litigation with the city.

"I'm free of them. I'm not going to fight it anymore," Gesicki said. "It might look bad for me because I dropped it, but why do I have to fight for stuff? I wasn't a bad guy."

Susan Sinz, Largo's human resources director, said the city pursued the appeal because Gesicki violated a direct order of a supervisor, knowing his choice could result in termination. The city won the appeal, she said, because it presented evidence that proved Gesicki understood his responsibility.

"With Charley it was a potential direct hit," Sinz said. "He understood that and very fully understood that the day he decided he was not going to come back."

Attorney Bonnie Riggens, who previously represented Gesicki, said the referee might have sided with Gesicki if he had continued his claim. In this hearing, the burden of proof was on the city, and misconduct needed to be substantial to deny benefits.

"I myself would not categorize it as winning. Mr. Gesicki did not appear to present a counterargument," Riggens said.

Gesicki's firing provided him with opportunities for legal action against the city, but he chose not to pursue them, Riggens said.

Largo's legal fees for the appeal have not been tabulated, but City Attorney Alan Zimmet estimated costs at $6,000.

The city was directly and financially responsible for Gesicki's benefits since Largo is self-insured for unemployment compensation.

Before the hearing, Zimmet said, Gesicki also failed to produce any information about his mother's health.

Gesicki said his foreman knew his mother wasn't well and the St. Petersburg Times and other media outlets reported her ailments, which included arthritis and a bad hip.

Catherine Gesicki, 81, confirmed her health was an issue at the time. Constant lifting of her 200-pound husband, Ned, before he died of cancer in November 2003 caused her to have a painful, hernia-like disorder that affected her bladder.

She was due to have surgery around the time Hurricane Charley hit but had to postpone the operation for a few weeks.

As Charley approached, her Largo home was under a mandatory evacuation order. The city provided shelter for relatives of employees and brought up the fact that special needs shelters were also available.

But Gesicki said he decided to stay by his mother's side in spite of city policy because she was both physically and emotionally frail.

"They can't fathom when two people are married for 63 years. It's such a psychological trauma she was still trying to get over. There's no way I could have brought her to a shelter," Gesicki said.

The day before Charley, Gesicki filled sandbags. He told his foreman and supervisor that he needed to take his mother to his Spring Hill home because of her evacuation order and that he probably wouldn't be at work the next day. On Aug. 13, the day of the hurricane, he called the city to inform his supervisors he wouldn't be in.

Catherine Gesicki said she didn't think her son would be fired. She now wonders if she should have handled the situation differently.

"I would rather have suffered than for him to be fired," she said.

But Gesicki said he wouldn't have changed a thing.

"My mom needed me. It wouldn't matter to me if we went back to the same day. I would have done the same thing."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorrisptimes.com.

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