The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors has launched an investigation into why several E-911 workers all called in sick last week.
Supervisors unanimously approved tasking the sheriff’s office to lead the investigation after an executive session discussion during their regular meeting Monday.
Last week, a total of six E-911 dispatchers called in sick, and others on standby failed to answer their phones to come to work, Board President Harry Sanders told The Dispatch after Monday’s meeting. That accounted for the entire Tuesday night shift, he said, as well as Wednesday’s entire day shift.
Sanders believes at least some of them acted as they did in a coordinated protest because they did not receive raises recently when their coworkers did.
“The supervisor and director of 911 had to man (those shifts) themselves, after they’d been up all day the day before,” Sanders said.
Sheriff Mike Arledge and his investigators will interview the workers, along with E-911 director Sholanda Givens, to determine what happened. The board will meet again at 9 a.m. Friday to decide what, if any, action to take. Sanders said the county will perform due diligence to see if any workers actually were sick before supervisors make a decision.
“There very easily could have been a tornado or a big fire or wreck or terrorist shooting of some sort that could have happened when we were not manned properly by 911 and it could have made things a lot worse,” he said. “What would happen if the night shift at the sheriff’s department all called in sick, or if the night shift at the police department all called in sick? It’d be bedlam.
“This is unacceptable behavior and something has to be done about it,” he added.
Givens declined to comment to The Dispatch.
Supervisors voted earlier this month to raise the entry-level E-911 wage from $11 an hour to $11.50 after learning the center was having difficulty keeping workers due to low starting-level pay, Sanders said. Entry pay for new hires will go to $12 an hour after six months.
Sanders said about eight E-911 workers received raises to $12 an hour as part of that vote.
“All of the people who were making less than $12 an hour, we brought them up to $12,” he said. “Some of the people that have been there a while didn’t get a raise. They were upset about it, so what they did — they didn’t say anything to anybody or anything — they just all called in sick.”
E-911 has 17 total employees, Sanders said. Three work on each shift.
The six who called in sick last week range in experience from five months to 10 years, and their hourly pay ranges from $12 to $14.38, according to records The Dispatch obtained this morning from County Administrator Ralph Billingsley’s office.
‘We might have to fire them too’
Sanders also expressed frustration with the county’s 911 board, which didn’t fire the employees after the absences.
The E-911 board is composed of five supervisor-appointed members.
Jeff Hays represents District 1, Chris Griffin represents District 2, Rodney Sullivan represents District 3, Eric Thomas represents District 4 and Keith Worshaim represents District 5.
Sanders said that board met Thursday to consider terminating the employees but that vote failed 3-2. Hays and Sullivan voted to terminate them, while Griffin, Thomas and Worshaim opposed it, according to County Administrator Ralph Billingsley.
Thomas, speaking to The Dispatch, said he opposed firing the dispatchers because he felt it could be harmful, in the long run, for the E-911 center. Five E-911 dispatchers have less than a year of experience, Thomas said. Three of those are still in their post-hire probationary period.
He said the E-911 board opted to send a letter to all of its dispatchers to tell them that further such actions wouldn’t be tolerated and would require disciplinary action. The dispatchers were required to sign the letter to acknowledge they received it.
“I don’t think firing them is the right solution,” Thomas said. “If some of those dispatchers are seasoned and we fire them, we are still putting the county in jeopardy because we’re six short. If we’re going to fire them, we’re pretty much doing the same thing they did.”
Thomas is running for the Columbus Ward 2 council seat.
Sanders, however, said he wanted the E-911 board to take more decisive action.
“We’ve got a 911 board and we don’t want to sit there and have the board of supervisors tell them what to do,” Sanders said. “They’re supposed to be autonomous. But, you know, if they’re not doing their job, they work at the will and pleasure of the board of supervisors. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we might have to fire them, too.”
Thomas said the board’s closeness to the situation matters, and he hopes supervisors will allow the board to handle the matter.
“I really would hope the board of supervisors would look at that a little differently and let us, as a 911 board, come up with a solution that would work best,” he said. “We’re governed by the board of supervisors, but they’re on the outside looking in. Let us look at the right disciplinary actions to take.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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