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Pa. Community Center Must Face Suit Over Sick Leave Firings

By Matt Fair · June 7, 2021, 5:58 PM EDT

A federal judge has given the go-ahead for former staffers at a Philadelphia community service agency to forge ahead with claims that they were fired for complaining about unclear sick leave policies after being sent to work from home in after a co-worker tested positive for COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage rejected arguments from Old Pine Community Center that the five workers, who were fired at the beginning of August, had failed to adequately demonstrate that they'd engaged in protected activity under Philadelphia's paid sick leave ordinance when they signed a letter complaining about the agency's failure to lay out a clear sick leave policy.

"The ordinance makes clear that employees are entitled to know about this policy," Judge Savage said in his opinion on Friday. "Plaintiffs' ... letter clearly expresses dissatisfaction with Old Pine's failure to provide this notice. Within two weeks of sending the letter, they were terminated. These allegations are sufficient to state a claim for retaliation under the ordinance."

The staffers sued in January, claiming that Old Pine, which provides meals and operates a summer camp for low-income city residents, had fired them in violation of the Philadelphia Paid Sick Leave Ordinance after complaining about its unclear leave policies.

Additionally, the staffers said that Old Pine had violated the law by not allowing them to continue accruing paid sick leave after the agency was forced to close its community center when a coworker tested positive for COVID-19 in July.

Following the positive COVID-19 test, the opinion said that Old Pine ordered staff to work from home until the community center could reopen, and to get themselves tested for the virus as well.

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

The workers also claimed Old Pine failed to track their sick time before the closure, leaving them unsure whether they could use any paid time off during the quarantine period.

The opinion said that nine of the agency's workers eventually sent a letter to Old Pine's board of managers after the center closed, complaining among other things about a "lack of clear communication of accrual of paid sick leave for all employees."

Just 10 days later, the opinion said that five of the nine workers were fired.

Old Pine moved to dismiss the claims in February, arguing that the workers hadn't provided enough detail about any alleged violations of the sick leave law, including whether they qualified under the ordinance and exactly how much time they would've been entitled to.

Similarly, the agency said that there was no clear claim that it had violated provisions of the law barring retaliation against employees for exercising their rights under the ordinance.

It said that the workers were trying to pin their retaliation claim on what it said was the letter's "sole conclusory statement" about a lack of clear communication about the agency's sick leave policies.

But Judge Savage ruled that the workers had clearly pled their claims that they fell under the ambit of the ordinance, and that they'd been allegedly retaliated against for trying to ensure it was followed.

"Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that they were covered employees entitled to paid leave for the time period between when Old Pine closed its facility due to a positive COVID-19 test and their termination under the ordinance," he said. "They have also alleged sufficient facts showing their termination was in retaliation for exercising their rights to notice about sick leave rights."

Timothy Creech, an attorney with Creech & Creech LLC representing the workers, told Law360 on Monday he was pleased with the decision.

"This motion was about their failure to notify their employees of their rights under this ordinance and to track the time that accrued for their employees, because they potentially had an opportunity to use that time for day they weren't physically working," he said.

An attorney for Old Pine declined to comment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Timothy Creech of Creech & Creech LLC.

Old Pine is represented by John Lamb and Ronda O'Donnell of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin PC.

The case is Bellinger et al. v. Old Pine Community Center, case number 2:21-cv-00757, before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

--Additional reporting by Matthew Santoni. Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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