A local pulp and paper union Thursday filed a grievance against Longview WestRock mill managers for adopting a coronavirus policy allowing supervisors to count potentially infected employees as unexcused if they do not use sick days to cover absences.
The policy itself appears fairly common for employers in the area, including the Nippon Dynawave Packaging mill in Longview. It also appears to follow the WestRock’s general sick leave policy.
But it raises questions many workers are dealing with during the coronavirus outbreak: What should I do if I feel sick but I’m out of leave? And should there be special sick leave for COVID-19?
Washington state sick leave law requires employers to offer one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours an employee works. That time accrues throughout the year, and employees can roll over up to 40 hours of sick time into the next year.
Employees can use sick time for a mental or physical illness; to take care of a family member with a mental or physical illness; if a child’s school is closed by order of a public health official; or for instances of domestic violence.
The law, however, does not offer specific guidance on what happens once employees exhaust their leave, and it doesn’t require anything from employers once a worker’s leave is depleted, said Tim Church, spokesman for the state Department of Labor & Industries.
Employers and employees are working together to figure out how best to apply the law to the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation, he said. There also are other types of leave, such as short-term disability or unemployment insurance, that could apply in place of paid sick leave. (A chart of which state leave programs apply under various COVID-19 scenarios is attached to the online version of this article.)
“I believe that most employers recognize how challenging this situation is and are going to do the best they can do the right thing,” Church said. “Our hope would be that they work together with their employees to gauge their specific situations and see what they can come up with as a solution.”
Union representatives with the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 153 say WestRock implemented a coronavirus-related policy without consulting the union. The company is required to bargain any policy and language changes to a contract, said Nick Boehler, chairman for the union standing committee.
“WestRock has kind of gone their own way on just telling us what they want to do,” Boehler said.
Company spokesman John Pensac said WestRock is following Center for Disease Control guidelines for travel and health.
“We are emphasizing that employees should actively monitor their health, stay home when feeling ill and consult their doctor if they exhibit any symptoms associated with the coronavirus,” Pensac said in a prepared statement Thursday.
He did not return additional request for comment about the grievance.
According to the union, WestRock wants any employee with a fever to go to a nurse. If the nurse determines the person is sick, the company will ask the employee to go to the doctor.
That would be considered an unexcused absence unless the employee uses paid sick leave, according to minutes from meeting between the union and company human resources officials.
In its grievance, the union asks the company to cover the cost for tests and lost work time for an employee suspected of having COVID-19, if the company requires them. It also wants to remove or hold any negative attendance mark if it arises because of a suspected coronavirus infection.
Legally, the company can send a sick employee home, but it is not required to excuse that absence, according to L&I. An employee can use paid leave to excuse the absence, if it’s available.
“We are fortunate in Washington that we have this paid sick leave law, but it’s going to help some people more than others,” Church said. “Clearly if people have saved up their leave and carried over some from last year, then they will have it and be able to use it. Not everyone has been at their job that long or has been able to store up leave. For those folks, it might be more of a hardship.”
Boehler said he is worried WestRock’s approach could deter workers from following recommendations to reduce risk and prevent spread of the disease because they are afraid to get written up for an unexcused absence.
“What’s going to end up happening is the guys and gals that work down there are likely not going to turn it in if they think they can work ill for a while,” Boehler said.
That concern is one shared by other branches of AWPPW, which are dealing with similar policies at Nippon Dynawave Packaging. AWPPW Local 633 president Lowell Lovgren said the company is sticking to standard procedure for sick days so far. That means if the company tells an employee to stay home and that worker doesn’t have sick pay left, they can be written up.
Nippon Dynawave agreed to excuse write-ups only if the worker is ultimately diagnosed with COVID-19, Lovgren said. Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 would qualify for short-term disability, said Mark Jewett, chairman of the AWPPW Local 580 standing committee. (Both locals represent members at the plant.)
Local 633 would likely file grievances for anyone written up for staying home for coronovirus concerns but isn’t diagnosed, Lovgren said.
“Anyone who doesn’t feel healthy shouldn’t be down there potentially infecting (others). … It’s just a common-sense thing,” Lovgren said.
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