Modesto workers remain on leave, collecting pay, 5 months after city sent them home

A city of Modesto employee Tyrone Darnell Hairston suffered a fatal injury while working on a streetlight at Floyd and Roselle avenues in April of last year.
A city of Modesto employee Tyrone Darnell Hairston suffered a fatal injury while working on a streetlight at Floyd and Roselle avenues in April of last year. aalfaro@modbee.com

Modesto placed three workers on paid leave in April pending their potential discipline and as a result of its investigation of the 2018 on-the-job electrocution of a co-worker.

Five months later, electricians Allen Garan and Ricardo Lacerdo remain on leave, and the third has retired. The third worker, electrical supervisor Rodney Nelson, retired Aug. 20 with an annual pension of $93,614, according to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. He had worked for the city for nearly 41 years, according to CalPERS.

Putting the three on paid leave since April 8 has cost Modesto about $90,000. That is based on a calculation of their annual salaries and when their paid leave started, all information provided by the city.

Modesto spokesman Thomas Reeves said Friday that City Manager Joe Lopez hopes this matter is resolved in October. When asked why it has taken so long, Reeves said the city needs to respect the due process rights of its employees.

This incident is not unique. In recent years it has taken the city more than half a year and longer to conclude personnel investigations and potential discipline of employees suspected of wrongdoing. And in those cases, city officials also have cited employees’ due process rights as among the reasons for the time it took to reach a resolution.

Garan and Lacerdo both had hearings June 4 contesting the city’s allegations and proposed discipline against them, according to the city. “The results of the hearings are not available yet,” Reeves said, adding he could not say more because this is a personnel matter.

Garan declined to comment, and Lacerdo and Nelson could not be reached for comment.

Garan and Lacerdo and electrician assistant Tyrone Darnell Hairston on April 9, 2018, were installing a streetlight pole that made contact with a high-voltage power line. Hairston was electrocuted.

The city’s investigation found several deficiencies in training, safety measures and other critical areas. The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, issued four citations and a $39,750 penalty in August 2018 against Modesto for safety violations in Hairston’s death.

Modesto is appealing, but that is on hold while Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations conducts its own investigation. An update was not available Friday afternoon from Cal/OSHA.

Hairston’s death resulted in Modesto making workplace safety a higher priority and undertaking several measures to improve safety, including hiring a safety officer. Michaux Burchard started as safety officer in October 2018.

But a July 25 memo from Lopez to supervisors, managers and department directors suggests it has not been easy. While the memo outlines what has been done to make the city safer, it states the safety officer “has broad support from the Management team and absolute autonomy in creating and enforcing workplace safety policies.”

It was written about 10 months after the safety officer started with the city.

The memo also states supervisors, managers and directors “participation and cooperation — and that of your team — (in the city’s safety efforts) is mandatory and necessary if we are going to ensure the safety of our workforce.”

Reeves said Lopez did not write the memo in response to a particular incident, and Reeves disagreed with the assessment that it suggests there are problems.

He said the memo is among the measures the city is taking to improve safety.

“Since we are re-prioritizing safety, this memo sought to reinforce that,” Reeves said.

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Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.