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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2017
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Four Largo city employees lose jobs for not working during Hurricane Irma

LARGO — Four public works employees lost their jobs because they didn't show up to work during Hurricane Irma.

The employees — two were fired and two resigned — told the Tampa Bay Times they decided to be with their families considering the magnitude of the storm. But City Manager Henry Schubert said Thursday that most employees may be required to be present during an emergency. Each worker signed an agreement in May acknowledging they were considered emergency responders and were told to report to work or face punishment up to termination.

"It's a condition of employment for actually most people who work for the city," Schubert said.

The employees said they were instructed to report to work the morning of Sept. 10 — the day before Irma blew through the area — and be prepared to stay for several days.

Brian Nutting, a solid waste driver who had worked for the city for more than two decades, said he was stunned that his supervisors fired him Sept. 15.

"It was like a sledgehammer hit me right between the eyes," Nutting, 58, said. "I didn't think they'd be that harsh to someone who has dedicated services to them for 24 years."

He reported the morning of Sept. 10 but left just before noon when the wind started to pick up. He wanted to be at his house about 2 miles from City Hall with his wife and their two dogs.

They considered evacuating, but worried that there wouldn't be room for their dogs. Nutting said he was aware of the consequences, but was expecting a suspension, not a termination.

"I would have taken a suspension, and I wouldn't have said a word about it," he said.

Adam Baur, a solid waste driver who had worked for the city since April, said he was expecting to get fired when he did not to go to work Sunday. He and several others were told to work an extra shift that Saturday to remove trash and debris from the road, said public works director Brian Usher.

Baur, 33, said that gave him little time to finish preparations, such as boarding his windows. When he signed the emergency responder form, he assumed employees would be given more time to get ready.

"This was basically about protecting my property and my loved ones," Baur said.

The city opened separate shelters in city buildings for employees and their families and pets, Schubert said.

James Semenas, 55, who resigned from his post as lead mechanic in lieu of being fired, planned to stay in the shelter until he learned he would be separated from his family.

"To me, I'm not a first responder," he said. "I'm a mechanic."

The fourth employee, Bianca Poteete, a former office specialist, said she was prepared to work long hours after Irma but not during the hurricane.

When she saw Irma was a Category 4, she told her supervisor she wouldn't be coming in to work.

"Knowing that and having my (three) kids at home, I wasn't willing to do that," Poteete, 34, said.

At least two other cities are investigating storm-related disciplinary cases. In Clearwater, three employees who were required to work but didn't are going through the disciplinary process, "but it's too soon to say what will happen," communications director Joelle Castelli said.

St. Petersburg is reviewing six cases — three for not reporting to work, the rest for other Irma-related offenses — said spokesman Ben Kirby.

Tampa and Hillsborough County reported no instances of employees being fired for not showing up during the storm.

Schubert said city officials were willing to make exceptions for an "extenuating circumstance in their personal life that was also an emergency." He gave a hypothetical example of an employee who had a spouse admitted to the hospital.

But otherwise, employees should have made plans. Usher said he had been warning his employees for days, including via a memo sent out Sept. 7 to all public works employees.

"The community expects us to keep them safe. We have an obligation that comes with our job," he said. "I think every one of us that was here would have rather been someplace else."

Times staff writers Charlie Frago, Rick Danielson and Tracey McManus contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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