Archuleta County employees lost bonuses for taking COVID sick time

A Colorado county’s policy to financially reward employees who didn’t take sick time off for COVID-19 during the pandemic sparked a sexual harassment brouhaha that led to the county administrator’s resignation, according to a newly filed federal lawsuit.

Lacy Brown, a former employee of Archuleta County in southern Colorado, sued the county and two of its commissioners Monday over the county’s policy of giving $2,000 bonuses to employees who did not take sick leave due to COVID-19 during the pandemic, as well as for what she says was retaliation by county officials after she raised her concerns.

Brown filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all county employees who were denied the bonus and estimates as many as 20 employees may have been affected. The lawsuit comes after the county commissioners voted in September 2021 to give $2,000 bonuses to employees who had not taken COVID-19 sick leave.

That bonus structure was illegal because taking sick leave for COVID-19 is protected by federal law and employees cannot be penalized for doing so, Brown’s attorney, David Albrechta, argued in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

Additionally, the county’s own policies required employees to stay home if they showed any symptoms of illness during the pandemic, he wrote in the complaint. Brown was denied the bonus because she took 6.5 hours of sick leave while she waited for the results of a coronavirus test, the lawsuit alleges.

“The county acted under a scheme to retaliate against anyone who took federally allocated and protected leave during a global pandemic through this retroactive punishment,” the lawsuit reads.

Archuleta County Attorney Todd Weaver declined to comment Tuesday. The two commissioners who voted in favor of the bonus, Ronnie Maez and Warren Brown, who were sued in their individual capacities, did not return requests for comment. Albrechta declined to comment outside of a news release.

In addition to the allegations about the bonus, Brown also claims she and a supervisor were retaliated against when she raised concerns about the bonus structure, according to the lawsuit.

After Brown complained, then-County Administrator Scott Wall made inappropriate comments to Brown’s direct supervisor, then-Human Services Director Matthew Dodson, both about Dodson, who is gay, and about Brown, according to the lawsuit.

“Mr. Wall stated that he would never meet with Ms. Brown alone because she had a bad reputation around town,” the lawsuit reads. “…Mr. Wall also made offensive comments about Mr. Dodson, a homosexual man.”

The two alerted county human resources that they intended to file sexual harassment and hostile work environment complaints against Wall on Sept. 16, 2021. The administrator resigned the next day.

After Wall’s resignation, the county went on to investigate Brown and Dodson, the lawsuit alleges. Brown eventually submitted her resignation in October 2021, but the county instead fired her. The county took the same action against Dodson, the complaint says.

“It is disappointing that the county I served for so long decided to terminate me after I reported harassment and after I voluntarily resigned,” Brown, who had worked for the county since 2011, said in a news release. “It is even more upsetting that all of this began simply because I challenged a decision by my elected officials to withhold a bonus from me and others when the county’s policy forced me to take time off during the pandemic.”

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