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Pinellas teachers file complaint over forced unpaid days off for COVID

One teacher said she lost $1,000 of pay because of the school district action.
A view of Pinellas County school district headquarters in Largo. District officials are scheduled to hear testimony in a class action grievance by two employee unions on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.
A view of Pinellas County school district headquarters in Largo. District officials are scheduled to hear testimony in a class action grievance by two employee unions on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 14|Updated Jun. 14

LARGO — Belcher Elementary School third-grade teacher Zayda Janiak received a positive COVID-19 test result late April 15, and reported it to the Pinellas County school district as required the following Monday.

Her instructions: Stay home for the next five days, or until fever-free for 24 hours without medicine, to prevent any possible spread of the illness.

Janiak did not expect the next bit of information. Since she had used up all but one day of her personal sick leave on a previous surgery, four of those days out would be unpaid. That’s $1,000 she would not get.

“That was the decision that frustrated me,” she said, noting she had contributed to a sick-leave bank specifically to avoid this scenario.

Belcher Elementary teacher Zayda Janiak
Belcher Elementary teacher Zayda Janiak [ Courtesy of Zayda Janiak ]

As the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association looked into Janiak’s concern, it discovered several other employees had similar experiences — all after March 31, when the district’s COVID-19 paid leave policy expired.

To union executive director Lindsey Blankenbaker, who also is a labor lawyer, the district had violated its contract by forcing workers into unpaid leave without any due process. Even teachers who are being disciplined for inappropriate behavior are put on paid leave pending additional review and formal action by the School Board, she noted.

“We talked to the district several times in the beginning of May” to resolve the situation, Blankenbaker said. “The district insisted that they had no responsibility for paying people.”

Dissatisfied, the teachers union joined the support professionals association to file a class action grievance against the district. An administrative hearing was tentatively scheduled for today, but after this story appeared online Tuesday, the district offered to update its sick leave agreement with the unions.

Concerns about whether district employees would be protected financially if forced to isolate because of the pandemic are nothing new. Representatives for the district and unions discussed the issue each semester, as their coronavirus protocols came up for review.

District negotiators at one point told the union leaders that they had no intention of forcing employees to pay out of pocket for absences caused by COVID-19. “We have to do what’s right for our employees,” staff attorney Laurie Dart said in January 2021.

Related: Pinellas teachers worry about sick leave for coronavirus cases

Janiak said she did not consider it fair for the district to end the coronavirus sick bank on March 31 and not pay employees who were instructed to stay home. She suggested that decision would discourage others from properly reporting positive results, which could result in spreading the virus to others.

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“The way things are with money these days, especially on a teacher’s salary, it’s tough,” said Janiak, who’s been teaching for seven years and has a master’s degree.

She said the district at least could have returned the days she donated to the coronavirus sick leave bank in order to be eligible for the added coverage she never received.

That’s essentially what Blankenbaker has requested in the grievance. She cites chapter and verse from the employee contracts regarding sick leave and discipline, contending the district violated those terms and had “essentially suspended” those faculty and staff members.

She called on the district to restore used sick leave and unpaid time off tied to district-mandated quarantines.

“Nothing in the contract allows you to send someone home from work on unpaid leave without due process,” she said.

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