COVID-19 'hazard pay' stirs fight to spread cash to more public workers

State and local governments are authorizing extra "hazard pay" for some municipal employees who are working during the coronavirus outbreak, although it's prompting criticism from others who are still working without extra pay.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans

Detroit on Friday became the latest municipality in Michigan to give pay increases for its critical employees when Mayor Mike Duggan announced more than 1,000 front-facing and public safety workers starting Monday will get the equivalent of $800 more per month in hazard pay. 

A day earlier, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans' office agreed to give sheriff's deputies an extra $30 for each day worked and an additional $10 for each overtime shift. Evans is a former county sheriff and Detroit police chief.

Other Wayne County employees deemed essential are still working but not getting paid extra — a discrepancy that's playing out across Michigan.

"We're asking our deputies to go out there every day, so we want to make sure we compensate them for their dedication and increased risk," Wayne County spokesman Bill Nowling said. "But I understand that we have other employees, like road repair crews, who are also out there working with no extra compensation.

"We're looking at possibly compensating them, too. We haven't said no to anything yet — but we have to balance doing the right thing with fiscal realities. We have no tax revenue coming in."

The state's largest police union, the Police Officers Association of Michigan, is lobbying state lawmakers to ensure all cops in Michigan get equal "hazard pay" increases, the union's legislative director Kenneth Grabowski said. 

"We're trying to get them to set a statewide standard," Grabowski said. "Right now, it's a hodgepodge; some officers are getting the extra compensation and some aren't. But they're all out there exposing themselves to danger."

Grabowski said he had a Thursday conference call with legislators to discuss the extra pay and other issues affecting police officers, including the importance of cops getting tested for the virus and being issued proper equipment. Although the Legislature is tentatively scheduled to meet next Thursday, the next session is likely to be postponed until the end of the month when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home executive order is set to expire.

Some "essential" state employees will receive an extra $750 in their bimonthly paychecks, while sheriff's deputies in Oakland and Macomb counties also are getting pay increases.

About 14,000 of Michigan's 49,000 employees are eligible for the extra pay, said Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the State Budget Office. In addition to Michigan State Police troopers, prison guards and social service workers required to make home visits will also get pay increases.

The extra compensation will come out of federal funds until Michigan's stay-at-home order is lifted, Weiss said. Right now, the order remains in place through the end of April.

Home care workers protest

Julie Batho of Sault Ste. Marie, who works for a private home health care company, said it's not fair to her and other private home care workers who are paid low wages and often don't have health care.

"Why can't they find some of that money for us?" said Batho, 34. "We need it too. I've been in the business for 12 years and I make only $12.75 an hour with no benefits; most people in this job make only $10 an hour with no benefits. But we're putting ourselves at just as much risk as anyone else."

Batho said she learned of the state's program from a relative who is a prison guard. On Wednesday, Batho penned an online petition imploring Whitmer to allocate some of the federal funds to private home health care workers.

"I do believe that prison guards and DHHS workers making home visits should get bonuses when they're putting their lives at risk, same as nurses and direct care workers," she wrote. "Problem is that majority of the essential workers like direct care staffs working during this pandemic makes minimum wage.

"... we have always been underappreciated and underpaid," Batho wrote. "We do this job to help the community. We are heroes now. Pay us a hero bonus just until this crisis ends."

U.S. Senator Gary Peters

As of Friday, 21 people had signed the petition.

Some private companies, including Kroger, are paying employees extra money for working during the virus outbreak, but Weiss said moves by private firms fall outside governmental purview. 

"It is just state employees,” Weiss said of the program. “The State Employer and Civil Service only have oversight of the state government workforce."

Michigan U.S. Sen. Gary Peters has proposed a "Heroes Fund" that would give a $13 per hour pay increase to private sector employees, including pharmacists, grocery store workers, truck drivers, building cleaners, letter carriers and others who interact with the public daily.

"These are folks who can't work from home and folks whose jobs are considered absolutely essential for our economy and essential for us to get through this public health crisis," the Bloomfield Township Democrat told The Detroit News.

Detroit authorizes payments

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

In announcing Detroit's program, Duggan noted more than 200 city employees have tested positive for the virus between fire, police, building department workers and DDOT bus drivers. 

He had been waiting on Congress to take some action to ensure front-facing workers and public safety employees were getting additional compensation for continuing with their jobs in the face of the crisis.

But those efforts, he said, are “bogged down” and “I’m feeling a need for us to act.”

Duggan first said Monday that he wanted a policy modeled after what is being offered in Atlanta, where workers are getting about $500 in extra pay per month. 

The mayor said he will sign an executive order that will provide for Detroit employees to get the equivalent of $800 a month in additional pay for COVID-19. For most, that will mean another $5 an hour. They can’t pay any of the city’s workforce retroactively. 

For firefighters who work nine shifts per month, it will be $90 extra per shift. 

“We are going to pay our first responders and our public facing employees in other departments,” he said. 

It will apply to fire, police, EMS, health department staff, water department workers, DDOT bus drivers, general services and building department inspectors. It’s six city departments in all over 14 unions. 

For fire, it’ll be battalion chiefs on down and for EMS it’ll be captains on down and for police, command staff and down. For the water department, field technicians and general service workers passing out food and staff testing for COVID-19 at the state fairgrounds will receive the extra pay, the mayor said.

“I intend to leave this order in place as long as the emergency is here,” said Duggan, adding until Gov. Gretchen Whitmer significantly eases her restrictive stay-at-home order. “I wish we could do more because our men and women deserve it but next week I’ll have to be rolling out $100 million in budget cuts.”

The mayor said he had to balance the deserving needs of the city workers “against the pain that all 9,000 employees will feel when we bring the budget in line.”

The mayor said this will cover more than 1,000 city employees. 

He’s still hopeful that the federal government will be able to provide some funding toward hazard pay. 

Why split among cops?

Meanwhile, police officers across Michigan are asking why some cops are getting extra pay, while others aren't, said Robert Stevenson, director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

"We're getting inquiries from police departments across the state, wondering if they're also eligible for those funds," Stevenson said. "They feel they're also critical employees."

Sheriff's deputies in Oakland and Macomb counties, like their counterparts in Wayne County, are getting extra compensation for working during the viral outbreak.

Macomb County employees were given emergency 80 hours time off when they were furloughed last month so they could make personal arrangements including child care. Deputies, corrections officers and other essential employees required to work during that period will be permitted to take two weeks of vacation in the future, when their positions would likely be covered by other employees perhaps at time-and-a-half pay.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel this week ordered a $2-per-hour increase for about 350 sheriff's deputies and other essential workers, another 600 workers will get $1-an-hour increases. Oakland County Executive David Coulter authorized paying essential employees time-and-a-half for every hour worked.

Both counties have hiring freezes.

“We appreciate our employees' sacrifice, dedication and service,” said Hackel, a former county sheriff. “We wanted show that with some extra pay, and employees with direct contact with the public will receive an extra $2 an hour and those in more controlled environments an additional $1 an hour.”

The Police Officers Association's Grabowski said he's glad some Michigan cops are getting extra money, "but we'd like to see all our officers share in that." 

The unequal distribution of pay increases isn't the only criticism. Mike Gingell of Ortonville, the lead Republican on the Democratic-controlled Oakland County Board of Commissioners, expressed concern about the fiscal cost of paying employees time-and-a-half for every hour worked.

“I’ve talked to more than one (official) who have said (it) would break their budgets,” Gingell said. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel helped track down an alleged drunken driver on Tuesday night.

Pay hikes strain budgets

On March 25, Gingell wrote an email to his fellow commissioners, expressing his apprehension.

"The Minority caucus has grave concerns over this decision and the process in which it was made," he wrote, adding the extra pay cost $3 million to $6 million over three weeks and much more beyond that.

"I am deeply disappointed that a matter of this nature, which will have a significant short-term impact on the County ... and potentially impact our longer term financial position (provided the Governor's order is expanded and the hardship pay continues as well as our overall AAA bond rating), was not at least raised with our caucus for discussion," he wrote.

Coulter's action has put pressure on township, city and village leaders to follow suit and raise pay for public safety officers and first responders, "and unfortunately they do not have the financial means to do so," Gingell wrote. "The consequences of this action span far beyond the immediate operations of the County."

Hillarie Chambers, Coulter’s chief deputy executive, argued that the county would seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and address any shortfall in the budget.

"Our priority is taking care of our front-line employees who do not have the option of staying home and to maintain these essential services for our residents," Chambers wrote in an email. "It is not a decision that we feel needs to re-considered during the ... stay at home order.

"I understand the views expressed by the local city, townships, and villages who do not receive law enforcement services from the county," Chambers wrote. "But we need to do what is best for our workforce at this unprecedented time. I trust they will make the right decisions for their communities and employees."

Budgetary concerns must be taken into consideration when deciding who to compensate, Nowling said, adding he expected the Wayne County increase to add about $200,000 to the payroll every two weeks.

"We're having a discussion every day about possibly compensating all county employees who are out there working," he said. "We want to do that, because it's the right thing to do.

"But we also have to look at what will happen when we come out of this pandemic, and put ourselves in a position for a recovery," he said. "These are not easy decisions to make."

Christine Ferretti contributed.