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Terminated employee sues Walterboro over COVID testing incident

Published: Aug. 11, 2021 at 5:26 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2021 at 7:37 PM EDT
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WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - A Walterboro man says he was wrongfully terminated earlier this year after he left work to get a COVID-19 test. While in isolation waiting for the results, Vernon Gilbert was informed that he had been fired from his job as a truck driver with the City of Walterboro.

According to court documents, Gilbert and his attorneys say he showed up to work on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 feeling ill and left the work site to get a COVD-19 test at Walterboro Adult & Pediatric Medicine. Those same documents show Gilbert was provided a doctor’s note excusing him from work until Feb. 9 or until the results of the test came back.

His test came back negative, but on Monday, according to Gilbert’s employee file, he was terminated for “attendance/tardiness.” According to an email from City Manager Jeff Molinari back in February, Gilbert was not fired for getting the COVID test but rather, “he was terminated for absenteeism and for violation of the City’s administrative guidelines.”

“They said if you feel sick, stay home and don’t come around, and on top of that they shut down city hall so we couldn’t get in the building,” Gilbert said. “By the time I got the doctor’s note they were already gone for the day. The following day I dropped it off to my assistant supervisor.”

When asked for additional information about those administrative guidelines, Molinari said they had no further comment. Live 5 News reached out Molinari’s office again Tuesday but was told they had not received the lawsuit yet and would not be commenting. The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 4.

Court filings suggest the tension in the case comes from whether or not Gilbert properly obtained permission to leave work for the COVID test and whether or not he presented the doctor’s note before the next day of work.

According to the official termination letter obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the city says there was no communication between Gilbert and his supervisors and that he didn’t show up for work on Friday.

Court filings by Gilbert’s attorney allege Gilbert spoke with his direct supervisor before leaving for the worksite to get tested and then returned at 11 a.m. the next day with the doctor’s note. They also claim there is surveillance footage that can verify Gilbert’s account.

Because of the termination, Gilbert was denied unemployment benefits. He says originally he wanted to get his job back, but now he is reconsidering that idea.

“I’m a little afraid to work for the city again because if you can fire me for following doctor’s orders I can only imagine what you’ll do this time,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s employee file shows he worked for the city for 14 years. He was written up in 2018 for an attendance issue, but Gilbert says one strike in more than 10 years shouldn’t be enough to fire him.

In the lawsuit, Gilbert’s attorney accuses the city of violating the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which broadly required certain employers to provide sick leave for employees.

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