2021 | Government

County Council considering $1.5M payment to settle employees’ COVID-19 labor dispute

Money would go to police, fire, sheriff’s office managers left out of earlier agreement

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County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration has proposed giving about $1.5 million to 83 public safety employees to settle a dispute over COVID-19 hazard payments.

Of the roughly $1.5 million, about $626,000 would go to county police employees, $602,000 would go to county Fire and Rescue Service employees and $224,000 would go to county Sheriff’s Office employees.

The claims came from managers left out of an earlier agreement with other employees.

According to council staff documents, the money would come from the county’s fire and general reserves.

A public hearing on the settlements is scheduled for Dec. 7. The County Council met in closed session in September to talk about the proposal.

The money is needed to settle 83 grievances filed through the Merit System Protection Board, which is appointed by the County Council to “oversee the merit system and protect County government employee and job applicant rights guaranteed under the merit system law,” according to its website. 

The grievances, filed by management employees, were related to COVID-19 hazard pay. They stated they were neglected from a prior round of COVID-19 hazard pay, despite working in similar conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. 

As part of the settlement, the county and its employee unions have agreed to delay proceedings at the Merit System Protection Board until the council makes a decision. The settlement also states that the county won’t pay the county employees’ attorney fees.

In July, Elrich’s administration submitted a supplemental budget appropriation of around $826,000 for settlements to Fire and Rescue Service and Sheriff’s Office management employees related to COVID-19 differential pay.

Differential, or hazard, pay refers to the extra risk some employees faced while working during the pandemic, particularly if they worked directly with the public.

When Elrich agreed in April 2020 to give county employees COVID-19 hazard pay, those agreements were not passed through to certain management positions in the county’s police department, Fire and Rescue Service or Sheriff’s Office.

It also was not forwarded to County Government Management Leadership Service employees, referring to “certain high-level merit system positions,” according to county documents.

Elrich’s administration decided to award about $89 million in extra hazard pay from April 2020 to mid-February 2021.

Employees in direct contact with the public were paid an extra $10 an hour. Those who worked in offices, not with the public, were paid an extra $3 an hour.

COVID-19 hazard pay has been a point of debate between Elrich’s administration and County Council members throughout the pandemic, especially as it relates to how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse those costs.

During Tuesday’s meeting, County Council President Tom Hucker said it was frustrating to be discussing COVID-19 hazard pay, and called discussion of the settlements “Groundhog Day,” referring to a movie about the same day playing out over and over. 

He and other council members asked several questions of County Attorney Marc Hansen and other county officials Tuesday, including about a letter Elrich and the administration sent to FEMA on July 2, 2020, requesting reimbursements for COVID-19 hazard pay. 

Some council members said they were concerned about both the fact that the letter was not reviewed by Hansen’s office before it was sent to FEMA, and that it was a major reason that the county had to settle with public safety employees about COVID-19 hazard pay.

The letter stated the negotiations county officials had with union leaders, and described how emergency pay to county employees had historically been in “discrete, regional emergency events,” like a snowstorm or hurricane.  

But because there was a state of emergency declared by Gov. Larry Hogan for the COVID-19 pandemic, that set up guidelines for how hazard pay would be negotiated, the letter stated. Hansen said that this information described in the letter was part of why the county offered a settlement, but not the entire reason.

“I think it’s fair to say that the letter was a factor. But even if that letter had not been written … in my humble opinion, we would still be here recommending a settlement,” Hansen said.

“There was a global pandemic. There was a federal declaration of emergency. There was a state declaration of emergency,” he added. “County facilities were closed. To me, that would have said to the merit board: not declaring an emergency because the executive didn’t want to pay is not a fair resolution of these managers’ grievances.”

Hucker, however, asked why Elrich didn’t declare a state of emergency in the county back then. Hansen said the county’s definition of that phrase is meant more to be invoked during “civil unrest,” not the conditions of a pandemic. 

Council members, however, said that outside of that, unclear messages from Elrich and his administration have made it difficult for them to justify decisions made regarding COVID-19 hazard pay, and that the public is paying for that.

Council Member Andrew Friedson has challenged Elrich and his administration’s fiscal strategy and decisions on the matter, and continued to do so Tuesday. He said the administration has been overly optimistic in its assumptions.

“I have known for a while that hope is not a fiscal strategy. … We’ve been talking about that since the beginning of these discussions,” Friedson said. “And it does feel like this, among related decisions, are the challenge that keeps on costing the taxpayers, and it’s just a real serious concern.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com