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NC sheriff plans to fight $4,000 citation following deputy's COVID-19 death

Deputy Sypraseuth Phouangphrachanh, known to many as Bud Phouang, died on March 21, 2020, from complications with the coronavirus.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, N.C. — The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office was cited by the North Carolina Department of Labor for failing to report a COVID-19 work-related death within eight hours, as required by law.

You may remember Deputy Bud Phouang. He was among the first people in the state to die of COVID-19. 

Montgomery County Sheriff Chris Watkins told WFMY News 2's Grace Holland he plans to appeal the $4,000 fine.

"I was deflated this week. It was not what I expected," Watkins said.

The sheriff received the letter Monday after an unannounced inspection by the North Carolina Department of Labor back on January 31.

The department's citation is one of 14 statewide. The state said those employers failed to report a work-related COVID death within eight hours, which is required by law.

Watkins said at the time of Deputy Bud's death, it was unclear if he caught the virus while on the job. 

Deputy Sypraseuth Phouangphrachanh, known to many as Bud Phouang, died on March 21, 2020, from complications with the coronavirus, according to the sheriff's office. 

"His death caught us obviously by surprise," Watkins said.

Phouang served as a School Resource Officer and led D.A.R.E courses at the schools he worked, among other roles, during the fourteen years he served with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.

"His loss was the saddest day of my career," Watkins said. "He got on a kid's level. He was well-liked by the children, by the faculty and the families."

The sheriff said contact tracing took weeks, not hours. Eventually, they found Deputy Bud caught the virus while working at the school.

Credit: Montgomery County Schools
Officer Sypraseuth "Bud" Phouangphrachanh was an SRO with Montgomery County Schools.

Watkins admits he did not report the death in the required time frame. He tried to get in touch with the state after confirming that his deputy died on the job, to make sure Phouang's family got their benefits.

He said that process took a year and a half.

"I'm not just saying the Department of Labor, but I called several agencies, and no one was in their office," Watkins said. "Raleigh had shut down. It was a stay-at-home quarantine, so there was no information available."

He believes the reporting rule was unrealistic early in the pandemic due to the time it took to contact trace and unclear state guidance. He also said the citation adds to the pain his department already suffered.

"I'm going to fight this," Watkins said. "I don’t think it’s fair. I’m doing what I’m doing because of the injustice of it, the insensitivity of it."

The Department of Labor told WFMY News 2's Grace Holland the division in charge of those reports is OSH.

"Our OSH Division never stopped taking calls during the COVID pandemic. Our phone lines were open during normal business hours, and our OSH staff responded to hundreds of calls and emails from employers and employees during the spring of 2020," Jennifer Haigwood said.

Haigwood is the Director of Communications and Policy Development for the N.C. Department of Labor. She couldn't confirm whether anyone spoke to Sheriff Watkins during that time.

Watkins has sent several public records requests to the state Department of Labor regarding policy at that point of the pandemic.

A handful of Triad employers also received citations.

Guilford County government got two citations. The Asheboro Fire Department received one. Pine Ridge Nursing Home in Thomasville, the same place at the center of a state investigation last month, got one too.

The Department of Labor said since March 1, 2020, OSHA has issued 14 citations to employers for failing to report a COVID-19 workplace-related death within eight hours. Employers that are cited can either pay the penalty, request an informal conference with OSHA, or appeal the citation.

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