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Officer's return to work questioned

Published February 15. 2011 05:00PM

A recovering Mahoning Township police officer will be returning to light duty work in the township at the recommendation of his physician after a split 3-2 vote by township supervisors at the conclusion of an animated discussion over whether it was the best course of action.

Supervisors also split 4-1 to grant heart-lung benefits for the month Officer Audie Mertz was off because of the foot injury.

"I'm concerned with him returning to work and have to climb steps to get to the police station, especially since he has a history of foot and leg injuries," said Supervisor George Stawnyczyj, one of two dissenters to the return authorization.

Stawnyczyj believed that it was risky to allow Mertz, a full-time officer, to return to duty before being fully released due to the station being on the second floor.

"What happens if he has an accident or gets hurt during the two weeks he is here on light duty? He will end up unable to work for a longer period of time then," Stawnyczyj said to the board, adding that he didn't believe he should be authorized to return to employment until the doctor fully released him.

Supervisor Travis Steigerwalt said he acknowledged Stawnyczyj's concerns, but felt the risk of his returning to perform light duty was minimal, and that it was only a two-week period until he returned to his doctor to get released.

Chairperson John Wieczorek pointed out that his concern was over whether the doctor would actually release him for work in two weeks.

"He could return to the doctor and be kept on light duty for another two weeks, then another two weeks and so on."

He asked Police Chief Kenneth Barnes how he knows this would only be two weeks. Barnes said Mertz told him that was what the doctor said.

He also told supervisors that Mertz requested returning to work. At one point, the suggestion was made that perhaps he could do some of the paperwork from home, but all of the supervisors felt that was even more risky simply because he could have an accident at home just as reasonably as one could happen in the workplace.

Supervisor Frank Ruch was concerned over whether authorizing such a conditional return would create a precedent that would bind supervisors in the future and how the union would handle it. He asked if there were provisions to cover this in the contract.

Wieczorek said in most cases it is the physician and not the workplace that prevents light duty from being allowed.

Barnes told supervisors that Mertz would have work to do, including paperwork from cases, handling the office and training the new officers. The work was there and does not have to be created to accommodate Mertz' restrictions.

"I would rather see him productive here, than sitting at home doing nothing if the doctor allows it," Barnes said.

Stawnyczyj stressed that he felt the authorization due to the officer's medical history of leg and foot injuries and the workplace being on the second floor was just too risky.

"If he reinjures himself, it could be serious and cause more problems," he reiterated.

Besides the light duty issue, Stawnyczyj was also quite vocal about authorizing heart-lung benefits.

"I think it's an insult to officers who are seriously injured on the job. He tripped while on duty. I don't think it rises to the level of such a benefit!"

Barnes told Stawnyczyj that Mertz was responding to a call from East Penn Township when he tripped on the ice. Solicitor Tom Nanovic added that the law simply says the officer must be injured in the line of duty.

Stawnyczyj said that he felt the benefit was for serious problems and not someone who tripped. Barnes told Stawnyczyj while the benefit originally began to help those with serious injuries, the scope expanded to include any officer suffering an injury while on duty that causes him or her to miss work.

Nanovic told the officials they are currently paying him and collecting his salary from Workers' Compensation. If the benefit was approved, then they would pay for the period and the Workers' Compensation would be refunded.

Stawnyczyj continued to voice opposition to both measures, but Steigerwalt made a motion to approve the light duty assignment. The first motion carried on a 3-2 vote with Wieczorek, Steigerwalt and Linda Benner approving the assignment, while Ruch and Stawnyczyj opposed it.

On the second motion to approve the payment of the heart-lung benefit, Stawnyczyj was the lone opposition in a 4-1 vote with Wieczorek, Ruch, Steigerwalt and Benner voting in favor of the motion.

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