A fire last week that closed down a major state office building in Madison may cost individual employees hundreds of dollars after managers told them they must use their personal leave time — or go without pay — until new office space can be located for them.
But after the State Journal asked about the possible loss of pay, the state Department of Administration offered a new solution Thursday afternoon that would allow some workers to “make up work time” without eating up vacation or taking an unpaid leave.
DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis told the State Journal on Tuesday that the 1,000 displaced employees from the GEF-1 building in Downtown Madison were working from home or other locations and that “NO employees have been furloughed and they have not had their pay reduced.”
But Thursday, Marquis confirmed that some employees are unable to work from home or another location but did not know how many.
Those workers, she said in an email earlier Thursday, “have the choice to use vacation, personal holiday, sabbatical or accrued comp time as paid leave, or they can take leave without pay if they want to save their vacation time.”
Marquis said there was no conflict between her statements Tuesday and Thursday because no one was being “furloughed” — employees had the choice of taking the time as paid or unpaid. Marquis said all employees would have somewhere to work by Tuesday.
After the State Journal asked about workers unable to work remotely, Marquis issued a statement later Thursday that included another solution: “When possible, employees are also able to make up work time rather than use paid or unpaid leave.”
Several employees from the state Department of Workforce Development and the Department of Children and Families had contacted the State Journal to say they were being penalized because their jobs cannot be done remotely. Those employees were interviewed before the state said Thursday employees could “make up work time.”
All of the employees who contacted the newspaper declined to be named, saying they feared disciplinary action or termination for speaking without authorization.
Tammy Downing, the union steward for the AFSCME local representing DWD employees, said she had been told all employees were being paid while the state was setting up new locations for them. Forcing employees to go unpaid or use paid time off is unfair, she said, “because it’s not our fault that we can’t work.”
The electrical fire displaced employees beginning May 16, and employees were paid for that day, Marquis said.
That means some workers will have been displaced for five workdays, as Monday is the Memorial Day holiday.
One worker said she was “shocked” to read in the State Journal that the Department of Administration was saying that no one would lose any pay. She and her co-workers, she said, were “pretty upset” that they were being forced to use unpaid or personal time.
“It’s still a week without pay — or burning up your vacation, which you may have other plans for,” she said.
Another employee said she’s been able to work from home, but others rely on paper files that are still in the building and “there’s very little that those people are able to do.”
Marquis said agency officials had begun to retrieve “crucial” work files and equipment and that employees could collect their personal belongings and additional work files “in the next few days.”
Milwaukee attorney Bob Duffy, who specializes in employment law, said he’s not familiar with all of the laws that might apply in this case. But Duffy said private-sector employers can force workers to take paid time off in such circumstances.
“Employers do have the right to compel people to take vacation at any particular time,” Duffy said. “In the private sector, it happens not on an infrequent basis, these sort of ‘acts of God.’ ”
In those cases, he said, “it’s not unusual for employers to do what you’re saying the state is doing here.”
Duffy said any employees who are forced to take unpaid time likely would qualify for unemployment compensation.
When the Milwaukee County Courthouse caught fire in July, displaced workers were paid for the days the building was closed and remote work sites unavailable, said Brendan Conway, spokesman for County Executive Chris Abele.
Conway said the building was completely reopened 2 ½ weeks after the $13 million fire, with parts of the courthouse opened before then. Employees were able to return to the building or work remotely all but two days, he said.
“The employees were paid. We just treated it like snow days,” Conway said.
Marquis said the state is working as fast as possible to reopen GEF-1. State officials have estimated the building at 201 E. Washington Ave. would remain closed for about eight weeks.
Since the fire, she said, customer services provided by the two state agencies “have been uninterrupted.”
“We’ve found locations for all GEF-1 employees by Tuesday, which is a feat in itself considering the building has approximately 1,000 employees and we’ve done this in less than a week,” Marquis said.