'I'm flabbergasted': Sheriff fined $4K for not reporting officer's COVID death right away

Sheriff Watkins said the fine is especially galling because Officer Phouang died at the start of the pandemic, before COVID was designated a work-related death


By Josh Shaffer
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

TROY, N.C. — Sheriff Chris Watkins remembers the night in 2020 when "Officer Bud" was dying from COVID-19, being taken off a ventilator only five days after getting sick.

The officer's wife called from intensive care, and she asked the sheriff to order him back to work over the phone — a last, futile swipe at the virus.

But Officer Bud would instead become NC's earliest first-responder death of the pandemic, and the first COVID-19 fatality in Montgomery County.

The community would remember Bud Phouang, whose full name was Sypraseuth Phouangphrachanh, as the sort of middle school resource officer who would dress as Superman and eat lunch with the bullied kids.

More than two years later, on Monday, Watkins got a letter from the NC Department of Labor: His office was being fined $4,000 for not reporting Officer Bud's death within 8 hours of his passing.

"I'm deflated," Watkins said Tuesday from the county seat of Troy, which sits near Uwharrie National Forest. "I'm flabbergasted. You're talking about a once-in-150-years plague, and then to come along two years later and say you're going to fine someone. These are certainly unprecedented times, and now we're dealing with unprecedented treatment."

Especially galling

A Department of Labor spokeswoman said Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson would make a statement by noon Wednesday.

To Watkins, the citation and fine are especially galling when he recalls the chaos and fear of March 2020, when Officer Bud died.

At the time, it wasn't clear whether his office was dealing with a workplace-related death, Watkins said. He recalls seeking guidance from the Department of Labor and other state agencies but being unable to get anyone on the phone, considering the shelter-in-place precautions the state was taking.

His department went through an administrative law judge to seek benefits for Officer Bud, and it continued working despite widespread shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that would become standard.

He recalled obtaining face masks from a hosiery factor that normally made socks.

"Some of the saddest moments of my being sheriff was Bud's death," he said, "but some of the proudest moments was people showed up the next day to go to work. Can you imagine how scared we were? They hugged their kids, they wiped their tears, but by God, they went to work."

He recalled Gov. Roy Cooper calling twice, one out of sympathy and one to ask permission to use Officer Bud's picture.

'Insensitive as hell'

Then in January, Watkins said, his office got an unannounced visit from a Labor Department compliance inspector, who questioned employees and looked at the premises.

"I thought the questions were insensitive as hell, but I bit my tongue as much as I could," Watkins said, recalling questions about PPE. "We didn't have toilet paper."

The report shows no violations beyond the missed eight-hour deadline.

Watkins said other essential employers can expect the same treatment. His office plans to appeal.

"I'll take criticism," he said, "but you've got to have some skin in the game. I don't think Department of Labor was responsible for protecting any worker during COVID.

"They didn't do a damned thing," he continued, "and I'm calling them to answer those questions. They weren't even at work in the month of April (2020). Nobody answered phones in Raleigh."

(c)2022 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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