2021 | Government

Council approves employee raises to replace COVID-19 hazard pay

Friedson opposed; Riemer, Rice wanted partial raises

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Montgomery County employees will get raises under a new deal struck with three unions that will replace the COVID-19 hazard pay policy.

The County Council voted 8-1 to support the raises for both union and nonunion employees.

From early April to mid-February, the county spent about $89 million on extra hazard, or differential, pay for county employees who had to work with the public during the pandemic, such as administering COVID-19 tests or vaccines.

Employees who had direct contact with the public were given an extra $10 per hour. Those working in an office, not near the public, could receive an additional $3 per hour.

The payments stopped in February under an agreement between County Executive Marc Elrich and the three unions.

Council Member Andrew Friedson was the only member who voted on Tuesday against the $3.8 million appropriation.

Friedson said he could not approve the supplemental appropriation because it “isn’t fiscally sustainable and doesn’t follow our established fiscal policies.”

“At a time of deep fiscal and economic uncertainty, the county executive’s proposal that’s before us uses the current year’s reserves, which are already below our 10% policy target to fund nearly $33 million in costs over the next 15 months and approximately $29 million in ongoing annual obligations,” he said.

Under the deal, employees will receive different types of raises, including service increments, longevity steps and general wage adjustments (GWA).

The service increments and longevity steps will be effective April 11 and cost $3.3 million for the current fiscal year.

The 1.5% GWA for all employees will be effective on June 20 and will cost about $453,000.

Last year, the council rejected proposed raises, citing economic uncertainties.

Council Member Hans Riemer on Tuesday proposed an amendment that would have decreased the amount for the raises by removing the general wage adjustment raise. Riemer and Council Member Craig Rice were the only council members to support the amendment, so it failed.

Riemer said the council has to focus on what the county can afford. The “elephant in the room is the $89 million that has already gone out the door in hazard pay,” he said.

“I don’t know how to disentangle these issues. Without the hazard pay, there’s no question this is affordable,” he said. “If we hadn’t had the hazard pay continuing week after week and month after month, there’s no doubt this package we have before us is the right package to do. But we can’t just assume that didn’t happen or pretend it didn’t happen.”

Riemer said that the step increases were reasonable and a compromise, but were unfortunately the price that had to be paid to get the executive branch to shut down the differential pay.

Council Member Will Jawando said the county should be a model and do what is right by approving the raises.

“This proposal to pay the GWA and to pay the steps is the right thing to do,” he said. “This is for our represented folks who make the least amount in these agencies that are providing services to our residents.”

Council President Tom Hucker said words aren’t enough to recognize employees’ service.

“We’re paying [many first responders] less than they would [earn] at many surrounding jurisdictions,” he said. “That’s one reason why we have a huge problem with employee retention, particularly among our first responders.

“That costs us all a lot of money. It costs a lot to recruit and train new staff and costs us a lot when we have gaps in our service provision, especially among our first responders.”

Hucker said many employees have put themselves in harm’s way and become ill or died from COVID-19, but they took the risk to serve the community.

Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, told the council that the raises are affordable and will be the first for some employees in more than two years.

Elrich has estimated that ending the COVID-19 differential pay, effective Feb. 14, reduces projected fiscal year 2021 expenses by $35 million compared to continuing to pay it through the end of the fiscal year.

During a public hearing before Tuesday’s vote, Michael McCullough, a county corrections officer, told the council that employees have had to pick up extra hours and wear double masks while working for up to 16 hours straight.

“The culture has changed dramatically when it comes to dealing with inmates and officers,” he said. “A lot of our inmates have mental health issues and they do not grasp wearing a mask all day. So there’s times where they rip them off and we have to really convince them to put them back on. [If] we can’t, we have to restrain them. There’s no policy behind this.”

McCullough said employees also have to deal with inmates who test positive for COVID-19.

“I cannot have a cup of coffee at work. If so, I have to find a closet or an empty room just to sip a cup of coffee or have a drop of water on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “We deserve the general wage adjustment and the other increases last year before the pandemic. We definitely deserve them now.”

Lisa Titus, a deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, said employees have not had the luxury of staying home to work and have dealt with increased workloads, such as domestic violence calls that have at least doubled.

Titus said she and others have had to enter homes where there have been positive COVID-19 cases and dealt with people who refused to put on masks because of mental health problems.

“Our job was dangerous before. It’s more dangerous now during the pandemic. But the intensity levels have gone through the roof, adding an additional layer of danger to our jobs,” she said.

Nancy Austin, a school community health nurse for Montgomery County Public Schools, said school nurses have dedicated their work to responding to the pandemic by helping with testing, vaccine administration, call center staffing, and contact tracing.

“As nurses though, we cannot stay hidden. We’ll be needed to be available to take care of the children because you can’t administer care behind a plexiglass screen,” she said. “We don’t just need our general wage adjustment and other collectively bargained increases. We deserve them.

“We can’t help that there’s a pandemic, but we’ve kept this county running despite all the problems that the pandemic caused. We really don’t need your thanks. We really need your action. We need to be compensated fairly.”

Jeffrey Buddle, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664, and Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994, both spoke at the hearing in favor of the raises and urged council members to approve the appropriation.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.