Two days before Hurricane Irma lashed Florida, Bernika Blocker packed up her home in Miami, took some cash out of the bank, and evacuated north to Atlanta with her father. The storm followed them to her brother-in-law's home in Georgia, and on Monday, September 11, Blocker called work to say she wouldn't be able to make it to her job as a City of Miami Beach recreation leader.
Blocker returned home later that week but, after missing four days of work, she received a notice saying the city intended to fire her.
Blocker, who had worked for the city for 17 years, was one of 115 Miami Beach employees who received letters for missing work around the time of the monster storm. After four months of negotiations between her union and the city, she was terminated January 31.
"I haven't had any writeups or anything in years," she says. "Now I'm unemployed."
Following the hurricane, 95 percent of employees returned to work immediately, city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier says. Of the 115 who did not, a "substantial number" were given a pass after they were able to show proof of hardship, she says. But for a handful of others, their jobs are still on the line.
"Due to the fact that these are ongoing personnel matters, we would not comment on them or provide further information until the matters have been resolved," Berthier says in a statement.
In Blocker's case, there was a dispute about whether she contacted the appropriate person about her absence. Blocker says she called Leslie Butler, who had acted in a supervisory role at their workplace at the Normandy Isle Park and Pool. In a September meeting, the assistant director of the parks and recreation department agreed that Butler was Blocker's supervisor but later corrected herself in an email, saying Blocker's actual supervisor was Abe Padro, a pool guard.
In employment negotiations with the city, Blocker provided a notarized letter from her brother-in-law that confirmed she had evacuated to Atlanta, as well as a signed affidavit from Butler, who said Blocker had asked her to let the department know she wouldn't be at work that week. But Blocker says the city demanded more evidence, such as credit card receipts, which she didn't have because she was using cash that week.
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"It's an 'ah-ha, got her' type of thing," Blocker tells New Times. "That's what it seems like."
After months of back-and-forth, Blocker says, in January the city gave her a "last-chance agreement," saying she could keep her job if she went on employment probation for a year. But Blocker says the stakes were too high — she could have been fired for any mistake within that year and would have to waive assistance from her union and her right to bring legal action against the city for any issue in her employment history. She refused to sign the agreement and was terminated at the end of January.
At the county level, Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman is trying to pass an ordinance that would make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against a nonessential employee for obeying an evacuation order. The ordinance defines essential employees as those "critical to the essential functioning" of a hospital or health-care provider, public or private utility, media company, government agency, government contractor, public safety agency, or other business providing essential emergency-related public-safety supplies or services.
The county will hold a public hearing about Heyman's proposal April 18.