Staff Say Pa. Community Center Axed Them For Virus Qualms

By Matthew Santoni
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Law360 (January 29, 2021, 1:38 PM EST) -- Five former employees of a Philadelphia community center told a Pennsylvania state court they were fired in retaliation for raising concerns about the center's pandemic response, including its mask use, social distancing measures and quick reopening after another staff member tested positive for COVID-19 in the summer.

Jeanette Bellinger, Jared de Uriarte, Khalif Martins, Gabrielle Rumney, and Isabelle Russell said they were among the signers of a letter to the board of managers at the Old Pine Community Center complaining they were given only a week after a supervisor tested positive for the virus before the center was expected to reopen in late July — not enough time to safely quarantine or even get the results back from their own COVID-19 tests. Though the letter resulted in the center staying closed a little longer, the five staff members said they were fired Aug. 3.

"Defendant failed to provide plaintiffs an opportunity to quarantine of 14 days, in accordance with the recommendations from the city and other authorities," said the complaint, filed Thursday in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. "The termination of each plaintiff was in retaliation for raising concerns about defendant's failures to comply with COVID protocols; and other concerns raised in and contemporaneous to [the letter]."

The lawsuit sought back pay and benefits for the five ex-employees, along with pay for sick leave they should have received under Philadelphia's COVID-related sick leave law. It made claims for violations of the city's COVID ordinance, the sick leave ordinance and damages under the federal Families First Coronavirus Relief Act.

According to the complaint, the five workers had all been employed by the Old Pine Community Center, the service arm of a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia's Society Hill Neighborhood. When the pandemic hit, they said the center failed to implement necessary safety measures, and while some programs were suspended due to concerns about spreading the virus, the center ramped up other programs such as food distributions.

"When the COVID crisis began, defendant continued to operate in ways that failed to comply with the guidelines provided by the city. ... Defendant failed, or delayed in implementing protocols to: provide masks, install shields or barriers, maintain social distancing, or properly clean and disinfect," the complaint said.

A supervisor who had allegedly been failing to follow social distancing or mask protocols tested positive for the virus, and other employees were notified July 22, the complaint said. But the center planned to reopen July 27.

The suit said the center's staff continued to work from home, but got no responses to their questions about whether they would be fully paid for that time or would continue accruing paid sick time during that work.

On July 24, the five employees and four others sent a letter to the board complaining about the center's planned reopening and its alleged mishandling of the pandemic before its temporary closure.

The letter, included as an exhibit to the complaint, said the staff had been denied their request for hazard pay, had suffered a lapse in their health care benefits between May and mid-June, had to pay out of their own pockets for virus testing after their supervisor was infected and suffered from a workplace culture of "fear of retaliation and retribution in voicing concerns."

Though the board kept the center closed for at least another week after July 27, the five workers said they were all fired on Aug. 3. The reason given was cutbacks at the center due to the pandemic, but each of the former employees said they had job duties, such as accepting food donations or preparing meals for the homeless, that continued or even intensified as the center's services shifted.

"Defendant asserted that plaintiffs were terminated due to budget constraints. ... On the contrary, defendant received more donations due to COVID and the need to feed people in the community. Large donations were made to defendant specifically to deal with the pandemic and the economic hardship it caused," the complaint said.

The complaint added that the center ended its summer camp/after school program, led by plaintiff Jeannette Bellinger, but that Bellinger kept working full-time on its feeding program, which was not terminated.

The lawsuit said the five workers were offered but rejected a severance package that would have prevented them from suing or speaking out about the circumstances of their terminations, and would have paid them less than they were allegedly due under the sick leave ordinance.

As further proof that the firings were allegedly pretextual, the workers said several of their job positions were only slightly altered and refilled with new applicants, and the original employees were not allowed to apply for the new jobs.

The suit also said the center had failed to properly keep track of their sick leave and to pay them for unused time, in violation of city ordinances. The complaint said the workers were not making any federal-law claims specific to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but the city's COVID ordinance allowed the court to award "other damages" that they were due under the federal law.

Counsel for the former workers and representatives of the Old Pine Community Center did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

The former workers are represented by Timothy P. Creech of Creech & Creech LLP.

Counsel information for the community center was not immediately available.

The case is Bellinger et al. v. Old Pine Community Center, case number 210101867, in the Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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