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Legal issue blocks county workers' time off

April 18, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Good Friday was almost better for Berkeley County employees, who were going to have some paid time off today until legal questions surfaced.

Berkeley County Commissioner Steve Teufel asked Thursday that county employees be given two to four hours off today as administrative leave, saying they could use the time to attend church services.

Commission President Howard Strauss, however, immediately spoke against the idea, saying not only was the proposal not on the meeting's agenda - making it a possible violation of open meeting laws - but if paid leave was granted for one religious holiday, it might be sought for others.

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Despite Strauss' dissension, Teufel's idea passed by a 2-1 vote. Commissioner John Wright, a pastor, also voted for it.

When the commissioners reconvened two hours later, the idea was nixed because administrative leave does not exist in the county's handbook and questions arose about whether the courthouse would be illegally closed, among other potential problems.

If so many employees left that the courthouse had to shut down, a lawsuit could be filed by someone who needed to do business there, said Claudia Bentley, acting legal counsel for the county.

Teufel then amended his original motion to state that employees can have a few hours off today if they use vacation time. That passed 3-0.

Strauss, whose jaw dropped when Teufel first mentioned the idea, said he had no clue the proposal was coming. Although Strauss said he is "a nice guy," he said altering the county's handbook at the 11th hour was not acceptable.

"It went from one thing to another. It was chaos," Strauss said after the meeting. "It was just very poor planning."

Teufel said administrative leave is often granted at the last minute to federal employees as a reward.

"It all comes down to letting the people know we care about them," Teufel said after the meeting. "We can only give them so much money. We can only give them so many benefits."

Before deciding that employees could take the time off only if they used vacation hours, County Administrator Deborah Hammond said commissioners could offer employees staggered two-hour lunches, with the idea they could use an hour for church.

Bentley warned that if commissioners did that, no condition could be made that employees go to church.

That proposal was not voted on by commissioners.

An issue that concerned Strauss was how much it would cost taxpayers to give employees time off. Hammond said the average employee makes $56 for half a day's work, and 180 employees are on the county's payroll. To give each employee a half day off would cost around $10,000.

"It doesn't cost anybody anything," Teufel argued. "The salaries are already budgeted."

Teufel, who said he wants to pursue the possibility of granting administrative leave, asked that the idea be placed on a future meeting agenda for discussion.

If a policy concerning administrative leave is adopted and incorporated into the county's handbook, Teufel said department heads could grant such time off if employees are not too busy.

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