2021 | Government

County has spent $78M in hazard pay for employees’ work during pandemic

Elrich administration scheduled to send council a budget savings plan on Friday

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As first responders, COVID-19 test site workers, and other government employees have had to work with the public during the pandemic, they have received a combined $77.7 million in hazard pay from Montgomery County since early April.

But County Council members have said that although some employees deserve extra pay for the risk of working directly with the public, there has not been an adequate plan for funding differential pay.

Some members also have said the administration has indicated that hazard pay would end at the end of 2020 unless the council agreed to continue it.

During a meeting with council members on Tuesday, Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, did not explain why hazard pay is continuing but said the council should expect to get more details on Friday. That’s when the administration is expected to provide the council a plan for future overall budget savings.

County Executive Marc Elrich previously negotiated with three labor unions to provide extra 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 promised an extra $10 per hour. Those working in an office, not near the public, could receive an additional $3 per hour.

The current agreements on hazard pay do not have set deadlines on how long they will last. But those rates of extra pay are expected to change in the savings plan that the council expects to get on Friday. There was no indication of what the change would be, including whether it would be cut or eliminated.

The county received $183.3 million through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to be used for costs associated with responding to the health crisis, such as grants for businesses and residents.

The original deadline of Dec. 30, 2020, left officials scrambling to try to get CRF money committed to certain expenses or into the hands of residents and businesses who qualified. But on Dec. 27, when President Donald Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law, the deadline to incur costs under the CRF was extended to Dec. 31, 2021.

The extension allows the county to have more time to seek to cover hazard pay through requests for reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) instead of using CRF money.

But FEMA has been slow to provide responses to submissions — county officials are still waiting on approval for several submissions totaling $71 million.

In an update to the council on Tuesday, Madaleno said the later deadline to use the CRF dollars provides “greater flexibility” for how the county spends money during the year.

The CRF money has been fully appropriated, but the deadline provides “more time to spend down the appropriations as originally intended by the council,” a staff report said.

If FEMA declines any particular reimbursements of those appropriations, the CRF money will be used — a situation some council members feared would mean less money to residents and businesses that need relief.

Council Member Andrew Friedson has consistently raised concerns with hazard pay and the timing of FEMA reimbursements.

He said during the council’s meeting on Tuesday that the deadline extension takes significant pressure off the county. But it does not add “new money” for new programs, he said.

Friedson said the administration previously promised the council that hazard pay would not continue after Dec. 31, 2020, unless the council approved it.

But on Tuesday, Madaleno said the pay is still in effect for the current pay period.

“If all proceeds as I am hopeful for, you will have all of those answers by Friday,” he said in response to Friedson’s questions regarding the continuance of the differential pay.

“That has changed. Is there something that change is based off of? You previously said you didn’t have the authorization to move it into the new year without council approval,” Friedson responded.

Madaleno said the continuation is “one of the Catch-22s” of the CRF being extended beyond Dec. 30.

“That’s why we are hopeful that with what we submit on Friday, you will see something different,” he said. Madaleno did not provide more details about the upcoming proposed savings plan.

When revenues were dropping because of the pandemic, Elrich sent over a savings plan to cut $66 million in early July. The council approved a greater cut, at $72 million, because it included cuts to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which were not yet approved by the Planning Board at the time of Elrich’s recommendation.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Friedson said he didn’t understand the disconnect.

“CRF extending allows for the FEMA strategy, which was a deeply flawed strategy, to not be the deadline that it was previously. … The challenge with the continuation is the authorization wasn’t because the CARES Act funding didn’t continue — it’s because there’s no more money in the CARES Act funding.

“That money has all been expended so now, at a certain point, something is going to have to backfill into the CARES Act bucket and the concern that I have is we’re spending money that we don’t have,” Friedson said.

He added that he is concerned about spending money the county effectively doesn’t have.

Council Member Hans Riemer echoed Friedson’s concerns. He also said there was no clear answer on why the hazard pay was extended into 2021 after the executive branch said it didn’t have that authority without the council’s approval.

“The fact that we’ve spent $77 million on this — vastly exceeding what we’ve funded our small businesses for their relief or employees that could have been hired for testing and vaccination programs, all kinds of things we could have done,” he said. “So we’ll see what we see on Friday.”

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