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County comptroller staffers may lose pay over bedbug dispute

Some 30 unnerved Erie County employees were sent home early last week when a bedbug was spotted crawling in their Rath Building office. Their boss said they would still be paid.

But Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw overstepped his authority to make that promise, said county officials. And now his employees are feeling the bite.

The employees are now being told they must use sick, personal or vacation time for their "unauthorized leave" on March 10. Otherwise, their paychecks will be docked nearly a full day's pay. The county contends Mychajliw violated county policies by sending his staff home without approval from either the county executive or a personnel or labor commissioner.

"He didn't have the authority to do that," County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.

Mychajliw called the personnel commissioner's decision a slap in the face to workers.

"I'm shocked and disappointed that the county executive would want his union employees to work in an unsafe, bug-infested environment," he said.

Buildings and Grounds administrators said the county has spent $2,300 so far treating all of the areas where bedbugs have been seen. There is no infestation, they say. About 10 bedbugs have been spotted on different floors of the Rath Building over the past several months, they said.

Bedbug captured in tape March 10 in the Erie County Comptroller's Office.

The county does not allow employees to work from home, and county policy states that exceptions for emergency circumstances must be approved in advance.

Denise Szymura, president of the county's Civil Service Employees Association Local 815, confirmed she spoke to Mychajliw on March 10 and alerted him to the county policy and the practice of moving employees to other county work spaces if their own work areas present a health risk.

But Mychajliw and his chief of staff, Bryan Fiume, said the Department of Buildings and Grounds indicated the Comptroller's Office might be sprayed during the work day, and employees were offered no alternative spaces to work. So Mychajliw directed all employees to go home after taking care of necessary cash and payroll transactions. Staffers also provided their cellphone numbers in case they were needed.

Poloncarz, a Democrat, and Mychajliw, a Republican, are political foes. CSEA employees who followed their supervisor's instructions are caught in the middle. Szymura said it's wrong for them to be punished.

"We will be filing a grievance on behalf of the members," she said. "And I believe that we will win in the end."

Meanwhile, Mychajliw and Fiume said they are prepared to retain an outside lawyer to fight the personnel commissioner's decision. Mychajliw said the rules regarding authorization for paid leave for other departments do not apply to his office.

"I am an independently elected official," he said. "I am not a department of the Erie County executive."

He also said he apparently has higher standards for his work environment than Poloncarz does.

Poloncarz responded that a single bug sighting should not be an excuse to shut down an entire division of county government, especially when the county is spending thousands to keep the bedbug problem in check.

"Fine, retain outside counsel," Poloncarz said of Mychajliw's position. "He should have confirmed with personnel before he sent everyone home."

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