FLORENCE, Colo. (KRDO) — Several current and former City of Florence employees tell 13 Investigations they were forced to take COVID sick leave in 2020 despite not being sick.
Florence’s acting city manager said the sick leave was taken by city employees in March 2020 to comply with federal public health guidelines to limit the spread of the deadly virus.
However, 13 Investigations spoke with several employees who tell a different story, alleging an attempt to use federal money to help solve city budget problems. The city of Florence says there was no shortfall in the budget that prompted the city to force its employees to use COVID sick leave.
Employees also reveal when they actually got sick with COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, they were initially told they had no COVID sick leave to cover their leave. It’s only an employee sent an e-mail with the rules of the Ministry of Labor showing that employers were required to provide COVID-19 leave, that employees were entitled to that sick leave, according to city records.
The COVID sick leave utilization plan was created by now fired City Manager Mike Patterson, according to Chief Financial Officer Lori Cobler. Patterson was fired in August 2021 and arrested for harassing his employees at City Hall.
A year and a half before Patterson was fired, records show he ordered department heads and staff to use up to two weeks of COVID sick leave even if they didn’t have the virus. Payroll records show scheduled sick leave was mostly taken in April and May.
“At that time, it was found that there was a $60,000 shortfall in the budget that Mike and Lori had not anticipated and budgeted for,” former Florence court clerk Nicole Phillip said. “Then the government announced the 80 hours for covid time for employees. So Mike and Lori came up with this plan which will allow the government to fix our budget and pay your guys salaries for two weeks.”
Records show Colorado governor first issued stay-at-home orders in late March 2020. These orders have been extended through April 26, 2020, before Colorado enters its “Safer at Home” phase amid the deadly pandemic.
13 Investigations reviewed records showing that several city hall employees and police had scheduled time off under the COVID pay code between April and May 2020.
“Let’s be very clear, were these people sick?” 13 Investigations demand.
“No,” Phillips replied. “No one had tested positive for COVID and is showing no signs at this time.”
Planning COVID sick leave for employees was a struggle for Florence deputy chief Bill Vinelli. We spoke with Vinelli about COVID sick time issues the day he stepped down in February.
“At the time, I was in charge of schedules, so it was very difficult,” Vinelli said. “There were almost every day that we had officers working alone, 10-hour shifts.”
Vinelli said it created a security issue when police patrolled the streets without backup officers.
“Were your employees sick when they took this time? » 13 Investigations demand.
“Nobody was sick,” Vinelli said.
City officials say they have not received reimbursement from the federal government for fraudulent sick leave taken by employees.
“The sick leave in question was taken in March 2020 as the country was in the process of responding to national government directives, i.e. Dr Fauci’s suggestion that the whole country take two weeks off and stay at home in an attempt to stop/slow the virus. City employees have been notified. Fremont County employees have also been notified,” Florence Acting City Manager Tom Piltinsgrud said in a statement. a letter to 13 Investigations.
“Mr. Patterson wanted to minimize staff time, so he originally thought he could use FFCRA funds for payroll or at least a tax credit to offset the expenses of reducing the staff time,” chief financial officer Lori Cobler wrote.
The city confirms that Patterson, Cobler and other employees were in an office at Florence City Hall to discuss how to schedule furloughs.
Below is part of a secret recording of this conversation provided to 13 Investigations by an employee who was in the room. After 13 Investigations let the Acting City Manager hear the recording and sent a transcript to him and the City Council, they confirmed the meeting took place at Florence Town Hall in the Spring of 2020.
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