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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 22, 2011

Unfunded mandate
Some volunteers object to workplace violence training

RENSSELAERVILLE — Some volunteers in town are objecting to the requirement to take workplace violence and sexual harassment prevention courses, but Jay Lewandowski, the town’s loss-prevention specialist, maintains that the training is required for any employee covered by the town’s workers’ compensation plan, and the supervisor argued in favor of these courses last week.

“Rensselaerville was very well attended in the last couple training sessions,” Supervisor Marie Dermody said of the hamlet at last week’s town board meeting. “There were some people from Medusa, [but] nobody from Preston Hollow Fire Company, and nobody from the ambulance. Where do we go from here? Can we afford a $5,000 fine?”

Lewandowski, who works for the New York State Municipal Workers’ Compensation Alliance, said Wednesday, “The village of Pelham, downstate, was fined $5,000 each for two volunteer firemen who hadn’t taken the training. The training was offered; they didn’t attend. If they don’t attend, and they allow them to continue working, they put the town at risk.”

“It’s a tough situation,” said Councilman Robert Bolte at last week’s meeting in Rensselaerville, “when you’ve got volunteers, and you force them into something like this here, you end up losing volunteers, and then we’ve got nothing for this town.”

“I want to see it in writing, and send it to each fire company,” said Gerald Wood, the town’s critical incident officer, and a member of Rensselaerville Volunteer Ambulance. “We’re volunteers; we don’t like to be told what to do. We’re getting up in the middle of the night…We want to see it in writing in the law.” Others behind him mumbled to each other in agreement.

Lewandowski and his organization work “hand-in-hand,” he said, with the New York State Department of Labor and the Public Employee Safety and Health Program, or PESH.

“What we do is help educate municipalities to meet requirements of some of these state mandates, many of which are unfunded, just like this one,” Lewandowski said. “So, one of the things that comes along with the workplace violence program is a mandate that all employees take workplace violence training. The mandate is for workplace violence, but the sexual harassment part is recommended; we do that as a tertiary thing because sexual harassment situations can spill into the workplace, and lead to workplace violence. The way PESH will enforce that law on municipalities is, anyone who could be subject to being covered under workers’ comp. coverage has to take the training.”

The department of labor’s Workplace Violence Prevention Law defines an employee as “a public employee working for an employer,” and fire companies are public governmental entities that levy taxes.

And Lewandowski says that, according to PESH, this mandate includes volunteers.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re being paid, or if you’re a volunteer; workplace violence can happen anywhere,” he said. “Whether it’s someone disgruntled because they don’t feel they got the right care from the fireperson, and they come into the station upset; or a domestic dispute; or a family dispute that happens in the fire department; all these things can lead to a workplace-violence situation. When we do this training, we try to address some of these potential issues. We do some training on how to recognize this type of behavior in someone, so you can nip it in the bud before it becomes an aggressive act.”

More information can be found at www.PEF.org/StopWorkplaceViolence.

“Again, you want to shoot the messenger,” Dermody told the crowd last week. “This should have been in place in 2009. I inherited the mess — you don’t like it? I don’t like it. I don’t like having to give the training six times, and still have people thumb their noses at it. But I also don’t like this town suffering the possibility of a $5,000 fine for every person who’s not in compliance.”

— Zach Simeone

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