Houston fire chief disputes union claim that city docked pay of quarantining FFs

Union officials said some firefighters saw nearly $2,000 deductions from their paychecks


Jasper Scherer
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association on Thursday accused the city of deducting pay from some firefighters who are under quarantine due to potential line-of-duty COVID-19 exposure, an allegation disputed by Fire Chief Sam Peña.

Six firefighters reported the issue to city officials, union president Marty Lancton said, and received “a range of explanations,” including “preventing sick leave abuse” and “paycheck coding mistakes” regarding sick leave, according to a union news release.

Houston's firefighters' union claims that firefighters' pay was docked while they were quarantining for possible COVID-19 exposure. Fire Chief Sam Peña has responded, disputing the claim. (Photo/Houston Fire Department Facebook)
Houston's firefighters' union claims that firefighters' pay was docked while they were quarantining for possible COVID-19 exposure. Fire Chief Sam Peña has responded, disputing the claim. (Photo/Houston Fire Department Facebook)

Some firefighters are seeing nearly $2,000 deductions from their paychecks, which cover two-week periods, union officials said.

Peña said officials from human resources, payroll and the Houston Fire Department’s infectious control division have corrected any pay errors that have arisen, but nobody has “put any directives in place to deduct time from any employees’ benefit leave, or dock pay due to COVID-19 exposure.”

“At my direction, HFD put in place a process to code any time off due to COVID-19 exposures in a way that would not take time from any employees’ leave bank,” Peña said, referring to accumulated time off. “Any coding errors entered by supervisors that have caused members to have sick time hours charged have been addressed through departmental memorandums and in-person meetings with station district chiefs.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, directing questions to Peña.

Iris Rodriguez, a fire department captain, received a paycheck last month that deducted prior payments she had received while under mandatory quarantine in June, according to emails and payroll records shared by the union.

The issue arose when Rodriguez was coded as being “sick,” instead of “relieved from duty with pay,” for her time in quarantine. She told a human resources worker about the error, then later received a deducted paycheck.

After bringing the new issue to the same worker, Rodriguez learned that human resources had never received documents that she had sent to workers compensation officials confirming she had been placed in quarantine.

Rodriguez still has not received the money deducted from her paycheck, Lancton said, adding that another firefighter was “docked” 75 percent of her paycheck and still is trying to resolve the issue. He accused Peña of being “out of touch with what’s happening with Houston firefighters in the stations and in their bank accounts.”

“Management word games do not change the facts of what happened,” Lancton said. “The fire chief’s command staff apparently did not execute his policy.”

In April, union officials said the city’s third-party claims administrator was imposing onerous requirements that made it all but impossible for firefighters to prove they had contracted COVID-19 at work, as required to receive workers compensation benefits.

Turner responded by announcing that the city would assume any employee who tests positive for the new coronavirus contracted it while on duty.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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