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Laid-off Gary EMS workers say they’ve been told they owe the city money

Updated: February 20, 2013 6:07AM



GARY — The 15 Emergency Medical Services workers in Gary who were laid off when the Fire Department merged with EMS say they’ve been told they owe the city thousands of dollars and suspect their earned time will be used to cover the bill.

Juanita Smith, a 15-year veteran, said Wednesday the 15 were called to the Public Safety Building on Jan. 9 to meet with Human Resources, Controller Celita Green and Corporate Counsel Niquelle Allen to turn in their badges and gear. After a question-and-answer session, each was called up individually to speak to the human resources representative about what they thought was their severance pay.

Instead, Smith said, she was told she owes the city $27,000.

“We’re trying to figure out how, if we owe the city that much money, how’re we going to get a check (for our earned time)?” Smith, 51 and of Gary, said. “And if I owe you that much money, why leave me in the dark this long? (The $27,000) is almost my salary for the year, so I owe you, and you’re going to get rid of me?”

Sonji Draper, a 20-year veteran, said she had 10 years in with the department before she ever took one sick day. According to records between 2006 to 2012 that she said got from the department, for 2011 alone she had 13 vacation days, 28 sick days and 11 comp days earned.

Per her calculations, she was expecting a little more than $15,000 in time owed to her. Now, she said she was told she owes $16,000.

“There is no way in hell I would’ve ever dedicated 20 years of my time to get this in return,” Draper said. “And there’s no way that only 15 of us owe the city money.”

Juana McLaurin, a 32-year EMS veteran, said she saw where some of her time was miscalculated; she said she even ended up correcting extra time she was given incorrectly. She’s still being told she owes $6,000 to the city.

And if the city plans on taking that out of her time earned, she will fight them.

“I’ve been told by a CPA and an attorney that the city either has to get (an employee’s) authorization to take money out of earned time, or else they have to take you to court,” she said. “This is my money.”

McLaurin also said that the employment personnel manual, which was passed as an ordinance 7-0 in 2006, states that in order to be paid for five or more sick days off, a doctor’s note was all the employee needed.

“They’re now going back to 2006 to try to get the money back for that time,” she said.

‘The weirdest thing’

Several of the former EMS employees met with a city auditor Thursday to find out exactly how much, if anything, they owe. McLaurin, for one, hopes it’s all a misunderstanding, but after her own meeting Thursday afternoon, Sonji Draper was dismayed.

“(The auditor) is still saying the same thing (she did on Jan. 9),” Draper said. “My understanding is that she’s frustrated the city threw this on her and that she’s not doing anything else about it.”

The former workers may have recourse in that they can file a claim with the Indiana Department of Labor. Since they were laid off, it’s actually the first thing they should do, the agency’s public information officer, Bob Dittmer, said.

“If they submit a claim to us, we’re a third-party examiner, and we can tell them what’s legal and what’s not, and then advise how to proceed,” Dittmer said. “Now, there are some limitations, such as the state can handle claims only up to $6,000 per person before it needs to be filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. But if we’re unable to resolve the issue or it exceeds $6,000, (filing with the state’s department first) empowers the person to seek relief from the court.”

Smith believes the city’s treating them like criminals.

“Why are they doing me like this?” she said. “Every one of us was devoted to that job, and I have never heard of anyone going through this kind of commotion during a layoff. They’re acting like we did something to them. They’re not going to help us.”

Councilman Roy Pratt, D-At-Large, also met with several of the EMS workers Thursday and said he will set up a meeting with them to discuss how they should proceed going forward.

“The new chief has come in and commandeered the city,” Pratt said. “This is the weirdest thing I’ve heard.”

In a statement, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said: “We wanted to ensure that each impacted employee received any payouts they were due for vacation and comp time. Those who were owed monies have received their payouts. An internal audit revealed that there were some miscalculations in the time earned by a few of the EMTs. Whenever there is the possibility of an over or under payment by the city, we owe it to the taxpayers and employees to disclose this information and to correct any errors.

“After informing the impacted EMTs of these discrepancies, we offered them the opportunity to meet with our internal auditor to go over their records. These meetings are currently taking place. Because this is a personnel matter, we are sensitive to their privacy and prefer to hold discussions with them directly. I will be meeting with the EMTs next week to discuss options to rectify this situation and to share information about possible employment opportunities.”



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