Caribou officials discuss impact of new leave policy

CARIBOU, Maine — With President Donald Trump signing the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” on March 18 — which requires municipalities to provide additional emergency sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic — officials in Caribou are discussing how to implement the new law. 

During a March 23 Caribou City Council meeting broadcast online and via cable channel 1301, City Manager Dennis Marker explained how the law will affect the municipality. He said the city’s proposed policy is based on the federal law.

As a new leave policy, the city’s draft would require a public hearing and further discussion, and Marker said it is not ready to be adopted and approved.

According to the policy outlined in the packet, the new rules would apply “in the event that it is necessary to institute precautions to limit exposure to a biological threat such as during a pandemic or other health threatening circumstance.”

The rules give the city manager sole responsibility for directing closure of public offices, facilities and spaces and directing staff members to quarantine themselves and work from home, or to not report to work.

Employees who are asked to quarantine themselves would still be compensated under administrative leave and those who work from home would be able to report their hours as regular hours.

City employees not asked to stay home but who want to self-quarantine would need to use their accrued time off, as also is the case for city employees who voluntarily travel into an area with confirmed cases of the virus and contract it as a result. 

Any city employees who become exposed during work hours could use the additional leave time and/or workers compensation.

The city could also fire any employees who do not report voluntary travel plans that go beyond designated safe areas.

City Clerk Jayne Farrin said that traveling as a result of family emergencies during this crisis “should not be considered traveling voluntarily.”

“If I had a family emergency, and I text my boss in the middle of the night, I might leave Aroostook County before I hear back from him. And that could happen,” she said. “We have family all across the state of Maine. We’re like one giant family here.”

Marker said that city council could discuss revising the policy to include family emergencies. 

City Councilor Doug Morrell asked Marker if the city would get any money back after offering the additional leave to employees. Marker said the city finance director is waiting for clarification.

Marker added that individual cities would need to follow what is outlined in the federal law. While benefits cannot be taken away from employees, the council could decide to provide more leave and benefits in additional scenarios.

Mayor Mark Goughan asked if it would be possible to look at how other communities are tweaking the law, or to ask the Maine Municipal Association legal team. He said that while there’s nothing wrong with making minor tweaks, he would prefer to start out with a basic premise that lawyers have reviewed to ensure the city is in compliance with federal and state laws.

Cote asked how long it would take for the city to take this to a public forum, which is required if any changes are made, emphasizing that the virus could potentially overrun the process.

Marker explained that the public forum is one of two options, and would consist of introducing an ordinance with changes, then placing a 10-day notice prior to the public hearing and finally adopting the ordinance. The city manager said this could take up to a month.

The second option would be to adopt an emergency ordinance, which would still have to go through an introductory process, but could move more quickly. Marker said emergency ordinances can only be in place for 60 days, after which city officials would likely have more information about the situation.

Cote emphasized that city staff may be affected quickly depending on future executive orders passed by the governor, and that 30 days is not a realistic time frame.

“We need to be proactive rather than just waiting because unfortunately it’s moving quickly,” she said.

If something happens before the city has time to pass its own ordinance, Marker said the city would follow the federal law as a default and then move forward with its own policy if any decisions are made within the city.

Morrell reiterated that it’s difficult to pick a direction without knowing how municipalities are going to be reimbursed for the extra money paid to employees.

“It’s tragic,” he said. “I understand that, but we’ve also got to live within our means.”

Marker said that all staff time is already covered within the budget, so Caribou would not lose money from providing employees with additional leave during the pandemic.

“But we’re not getting productivity,” said Morrell. “We’re not getting what we paid for. That is a loss no matter how you look at it, so that would be critical to understand prior to jumping in.”

Marker suggested creating a small team dedicated to looking into the policy. The mayor agreed, adding that he also wanted to seek legal advice from MMA before moving ahead.

Morrell asked the city manager if he could provide contact information for someone who may know how, or if, the city will be reimbursed for providing the additional leave.

Goughan concluded that this is a difficult subject for all involved.

“The situation is driving us,” he said. “We’re not in control of this.”

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