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Pinellas teachers worry about sick leave for coronavirus cases

Federal guarantees expired Dec. 31. The teachers union wants the school district to extend the benefit.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which required employers to guarantee paid sick and medical leave related to COVID-19, expired on Dec. 31, while educators across the state and nation were on winter break.

The Pinellas County school district received dozens of employee calls soon after classes resumed Monday, seeking to know if workers would have to dip into whatever accrued time off they have if they are quarantined from campus.

Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said that district officials agreed to continue the benefit for affected employees into the new year. But they wouldn’t put it into effect, she added, until the union signed an agreement on several other virus-related work conditions that its leaders aren’t ready to accept.

“They said they don’t want two” memorandums of understanding, Velardi said. “They absolutely did not say they were going to put (sick leave protections) into practice right away.”

She suggested the district dangled the sick leave deal as an incentive to speed acceptance of an “incredibly vague” agreement on issues such as cleaning protocols, masks and social distancing without adequate vetting. But the union’s leadership team isn’t going to accept the memorandum without changes, she said, or the absence of sick leave rules.

District officials acknowledged they want a quick turnaround on the workplace conditions document and the leave provisions. Ideally, they said, they’d like them in place before the first paycheck of 2021 and before the start of semester two on Jan. 20.

“Now is the time to be done with it,” deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said.

But he and others disputed Velardi’s version of events.

Laurie Dart, the district’s legal counsel, said the district had no intention of allowing employees to pay out of pocket for work days lost because of the coronavirus — whether or not they have a signed agreement with the union.

“We have to do what’s right for our employees,” Dart said, explaining that their accrued leave would not be affected by quarantine or self-isolation periods.

She noted that the district had taken other steps to provide equipment such as new classroom air filters and plexiglass separators, as the union suggested during a December bargaining session.

Related: Pinellas teachers want protections as more students return to school

“We can’t hold off on these actions until we get an agreement inked,” Dart said, noting the administration has a district to run.

At the same time, though, the union has not responded to the district’s suggestions for any workplace agreement, said Paula Texel, associate superintendent for human resources.

She said her team drafted a proposed memorandum shortly after their December meeting, and sent it on Dec. 14 for suggestions and comments.

“We did not hear anything from them,” Texel said, despite regular conversations about other matters.

The district called union leaders to schedule a Jan. 4 meeting to hash out items, knowing the first semester deal would soon expire.

“We’re waiting for any type of feedback,” she said.

The sides have scheduled a bargaining session for 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the issues.

Velardi said she will push for the best results for teachers, regardless of pressure from the district. Corbett suggested the sides aren’t far off.

“I feel like we’re on the same page when we talk to each other,” he said.

Just not always when they try to commit those ideas to paper.