2020 | Government

County Council ‘outraged’ over employees’ improper claims of hazard pay

Permitting employees working at home claimed money for public interaction, report says

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Montgomery County permitting employees improperly claimed COVID-19 hazard pay for work that was ineligible, according to a new inspector general report.

The county’s Office of the Inspector General said it received complaints in May that the county’s Department of Permitting Services management allowed inspectors to receive the extra $10-per-hour differential pay for time they worked in the office and at home — not exposed to the public.

Hazard pay was implemented in early April, when County Executive Marc Elrich negotiated with three labor unions to provide differential pay for employees who had to be in contact with the public as part of their job responsibilities.

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

The county spent more than $49 million on hazard pay in all departments as of Sept. 26, adding to an estimated total of $72 million if the pay continued through the end of the year, according to the report, which was dated Oct. 29 and released on Friday.

Employees were found to have been overpaid in the permitting department between March 29 and Aug. 29.

But the department might not be alone.

Investigators found that other county departments might also be “misapplying” the hazard pay policy and could be “paying undeserving employees COVID differential pay.”

In a statement sent Friday evening, the County Council said it was “outraged” by the hazard pay misuse.

It called for an independent investigation for differential pay in all of the county’s departments and for Elrich to stop any improper payments.

“Every dollar that was improperly paid, needs to be recovered immediately, and those who committed these egregious acts must be held accountable,” the statement said. “The council thanks those who reported their concerns to the Office of the Inspector General.”

During the investigation, OIG also discovered that some of the department’s inspection data was “incomplete and not accurate” to what was posted on its public website, Data Montgomery.

About half of the department’s inspectors “consistently claimed” 80 hours of hazard pay between late March and early May — a result of the department’s former acting director allowing staff members to claim differential pay for all inspection work, not just “front facing” work with the public.

“As a result of the DPS’s faulty decision to allow inspectors to broadly claim front facing differential pay, DPS inspectors were paid COVID differential pay that they were not entitled to receive,” the report said. “We were not able to calculate the extent of over payments, because we were not able to obtain accurate information on the number of inspections conducted by DPS inspectors, how inspections were conducted, and their duration.”

The council is scheduled to discuss the investigation with Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, and Megan Davey Limarzi, the county’s inspector general, at its meeting on Tuesday.

In a response on Wednesday to the report written, Madaleno wrote to Limarzi that DPS will review all hazard pay claims and other departments will review hazard pay expenses as well.

OIG recommended in its report that Madaleno not seek reimbursement for the hazard pay from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act until all county departments were complying.

In his response, Madaleno wrote that the federal funding reimbursements are based on “money actually spent in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“In the event that reimbursements are sought from individual employees for differential pay overpayments, the county will make all appropriate adjustments to any federal reimbursement requests or application of CRF monies,” he wrote.

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