Two days after Hurricane Irma swept over South Florida, triggering the largest evacuation effort in Florida’s history and leaving behind a morass of debris in the streets and widespread power outages, Miami Beach City Hall expected some of its employees to come to work.
When some of those government workers couldn’t make it back to the island on time, the city’s response was simple: Threaten to fire them.
About 100 employees have received letters outlining the city’s intent to fire them after they didn’t report to work Sept. 12, less than 48 hours after Irma’s outer bands hit the Beach. The letters are rattling the city’s rank and file employees and even supervisors who were under the impression employees simply needed to stay in touch with their bosses as city operations returned to normal.
In a statement to the Miami Herald on Friday afternoon, City Manager Jimmy Morales said the employees that received the letter were considered “essential” to the operation of the city.
“The vast majority of these employees were ‘essential’ employees that the city needs to be available to respond to the needs of a community, specifically in the event of an emergency,” Morales wrote.
But the terse termination letter is scaring municipal employees in the parks and recreation department, clerical workers and other non-managerial positions who were notified of their possible firing.
“As a public employee, one of our primary duties are to protect the citizens and businesses of our community and you are expected to report to work when scheduled and/or needed,” reads the letter. “The city of Miami Beach does not tolerate job abandonment.”
At the end of the letter, sent by the city’s human resources department, employees are told they would have a chance to explain themselves in a future scheduled meeting.
In his statement, Morales said the “pre-determination” letters are meant to trigger a process for each employee so they can meet with human resources and offer their side of the story.
“It is not our intention to terminate any employee who was facing a life safety situation or demonstrates an inability to return to work,” he wrote. “For these employees, the letter is rescinded and no discipline is given. We anticipate that most employees will not be terminated, although some other form of discipline may be appropriate.”
For Richard McKinnon, local union president of the Communication Workers of America, which represents at least a few dozen affected employees, the process is deeply flawed because it is scaring longtime employees who believe they are losing their jobs.
“It’s assuming they’re guilty until proven innocent,” McKinnon said. “It’s very un-American.”
It seems the city would consider even those who ended up at the office on Sept. 12 a few hours late as people who “abandoned” their jobs. A 20-year employee who works as a clerk typist received the letter after she arrived at work around midday Sept. 12. She lives in Sunny Isles Beach, which was under a full lockdown.
Michael Braverman, an attorney for the union that represents the clerk typist, who requested to not be named, said she hadn’t even been notified she was required to be at the office at 8 a.m. that day. She got a call from a supervisor mid-morning telling her she needed to come in immediately. She was in the office before lunch.
“After all of that, they send her a letter saying that they’re going to fire her because she didn’t come into work,” Braverman said in an interview Friday.
In another case, a civilian working in the police department had evacuated with his special-needs child. He’d evacuated to northeast Florida, which was eventually affected by Irma, causing him to head farther north to North Carolina. He wasn’t able to return by the date specified by his supervisors, but Braverman said the employee was hoping the city would understand his circumstances.
The civilian, who requested to be anonymous, was threatened with termination. Among his “essential” duties if he had returned when the city wanted him to? Passing out water and picking up cones and barriers, said Braverman, who was present for the worker’s meeting with human resources.
As Irma approached, Miami Beach was under an evacuation order — first at the strong suggestion of Mayor Philip Levine on Sept. 5 and then through an official order given by Miami-Dade County days later. All employees, essential and otherwise, were expected to come back Wednesday, Sept. 13, to do cleanup work across the city.
Braverman acknowledged that there could be employees who don’t have a good excuse for not showing up, but he said that sending out threatening letters creates an unnecessary panic among the workforce — some of whom might be dealing with the aftermath of Irma at home.
“The city just horribly mismanaged their personnel during this time,” he said.