As cities around the state evaluate whether hazard pay for first responders working during the COVID-19 pandemic is financially feasible, Mobile County is rolling back incentives approved for certain employees including local deputies after determining long term costs were “unsustainable.”
During a meeting Thursday, members of the Mobile County Commission voted 2-1 to reduce a “time and half” pay bump for employees who work directly with the public.
The reduction will bring the incentive pay down from time and half (a rate of 1.5) to a rate 1.1 — creating what is effectively a 10 percent increase in their regular pay going forward. Officials said the reduction would impact deputies and corrections officers with Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, among others.
The initial pay hike was approved March 23, but according to the County Finance Director Dana Foster-Allen, after only a partial pay period, the numbers showed those costs were too much heading into a time when the county is expecting to see major reductions in revenue from local sales taxes.
In addition to the county’s fixed monthly salary costs, Foster-Allen said the hazard pay as initially approved would cost taxpayers an extra $643,000 for each pay period. At the reduced rate of 1.1, those numbers drop to $108,000 — a savings of more than $489,000 every two weeks.
Even with the reduced rate, the increased payroll costs will have to be maintained at a time of financial uncertainty for counties and cities throughout Alabama and around the country.
Though counties receive a good bit of their funding from property taxes, they also collect sales taxes that will no doubt be severely impacted by the closing of non-essential businesses and the reduction in services at restaurants.
At the meeting, commissioners didn’t seem happy about rolling back the incentives they approved just two weeks ago, but Commissioner Connie Hudson said it was immediately clear that the costs weren’t sustainable, especially when there’s still no indication of how long businesses could be shuttered.
“This is bringing the figure down to a 10 percent increase. The city of Birmingham is only offering a 5 percent increase and very few cities and counties in the state are offering any hazard pay at all because of the cost,” Hudson said. “I think this is fair because we can’t put ourselves in the position of not being able to sustain the money. Who knows how long this will last and what our revenues will look like? And we certainly want to maintain the employee levels that we have currently.”
The long term cost of maintaining the initial hazard pay rate seemed to only become apparent recently. In fact, Hudson seemed to be the only commissioner who knew about the request to reduce those incentives prior to Thursday’s meeting.
She explained she independently inquired about the costs on Wednesday but couldn’t share that information with her two other colleagues due to state laws that prohibit a quorum of the three-member commission from discussing county business outside an open meeting.
Commission President Jerry Carl and Commissioner Merceria Ludgood emphasized to members of the county’s administration that, when making decisions of this magnitude in the future, they would like to receive all of the numbers with enough time to digest them properly.
“I think all three commissioners have got a right to see numbers,” Carl said. “My problem isn’t [the reduction], it’s the way it was handled. You’re asking us to push this through but we haven’t seen any numbers at all. That stinks to high heavens where I’m from. There are three commissioners up here.”
Ludgood, who voted with Hudson to approve the reduction in hazard pay, echoed Carl’s sentiment about receiving information in a timely manner. However, she also said she understood this particular information had only been compiled recently, adding that employees are “flying around by the seat of their pants” to handle all the challenges COVID-19 has presented.
The hazard pay reduction was part of a broader amendment to the county’s infectious disease and pandemic policy. Among other changes to comply with new federal laws, it also clarified which employees receive hazard pay.
Specifically, it refers to employees that have “a high potential for physical contact with a member of the public” or those whose job “cannot be performed without being less than six feet from a member of the public.”
For the purposes of the policy, the county does not include employees who work around other county employees or those who are able to adequately social distance (six feet of separation) in their regular work environment.
The county’s rollback comes as city officials continue to evaluate whether any hazard pay increase for Mobile’s first responders is feasible.
Wednesday, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the city, which relies more heavily on sales tax proceeds than the county, expects to lose around $12 million every month and may have to eat into a $63 million reserve fund to avoid layoffs and service reductions in the long term.
Like officials in other cities, Stimpson has said he’s hopeful that Congress can release federal funds to cover additional hazard pay in a second round of stimulus funding as part of its broader response to COVID-19. However, there’s been little progress.
It’s also become increasingly apparent how much local first responders are at risk for contracting COVID-19. As Lagniappe has reported, 895 police officers and firefighters from the city of Mobile have been tested for antibodies associated with COVID-19. Of those, more than 38 have been found to have a positive presence of the antibodies, and four of those have confirmed active COVID-19 infections.
According to a spokesperson for MCSO, at least two patrol deputies have tested positive for COVID-19, though the biggest concern for the county has been at the Mobile County Metro Jail.
As of Thursday, six inmates and nine corrections officers have tested positive for active cases and the jail itself has been identified as an outbreak “cluster” of COVID-19 by the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD).
Sheriff Sam Cochran is expected to give an update on Friday about what precautions his office is taking to ensure the safety of prisoners and officers in Metro as well as his deputies out in public. A spokesperson said Cochran will be joining Stimpson’s daily press conference at 3 p.m.
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