Statesboro’s city government is awarding each of its nearly 300 employees $500 in one-time “pandemic hazard pay,” using roughly $150,000 from the $1.7 million in federal CARES Act funding the city previously received.
In October, Statesboro City Council and Mayor Jonathan McCollar directed $250,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security cash to programs to assist residents and businesses. Of that amount, $100,000 was designated for rent and mortgage assistance, $75,000 for small-business grants and $75,000 for utility bill assistance.
City Manager Charles Penny, who formulated that proposal, also brought the recommendation for hazard pay Tuesday evening.
“Our employees have worked long and hard since March through now, and the pandemic is not over,” he told the mayor and council. “So therefore, I thought it would be fitting to recommend to you for all city employees, and the reason I say that is, the city through this pandemic, we have not closed our operations at all.”
Penny and the mayor closed City Hall and other city buildings, with the exception of the police station lobby, to in-person visits by the public from late March through May. City Hall reopened with limited hours at the beginning of June, but closed to in-person traffic again for a couple of weeks beginning the weekend of June 27 after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
However, employees continued working through those times, Penny noted in an email reply to the Statesboro Herald. Those working in offices communicated with the public by phone and email, the drive-thru reopened before City Hall’s front doors, and exceptions were made for socially distanced public meetings.
Probably 12 to 15 city employees have had to work at home because of health conditions that put them at greater risk, Penny told the council. Other employees have been exposed, not necessarily while at work, and 27 had tested positive since the pandemic began, he said.
The city had applied for the $1.7 million in CARES funding on the basis of public safety expenses, with all pay for police and fire department personnel who responded to any calls from March 1 through July 31 counted as pandemic-related.
But Penny did not propose limiting the hazard pay to public safety employees alone. Statesboro couldn’t afford a continuing hourly pay increase for certain categories of employees, like Savannah’s, or a monthly award of hazard pay for front-line workers, like Atlanta’s, he said.
“But when all of this really started, I sent a memo to all of our employees and said all of our employees are essential employees, and my belief is, I don’t like to have categories of employees, because to me, the most important employee is the employee you need at the time you need something,” Penny said.
That employee is a police officer or a firefighter when you need one, but also a sanitation worker when the trash needs picking up or a ditch digger when a ditch has to be dug, he said.
“That’s commendable, and it’s something I’m on board with, because I don’t know how this city would function without our essential workers,” said District 2 Councilwoman Paulette Chavers.
She made the motion, seconded by District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack. It passed 4-0, with District 4 Councilman John Riggs away.
The $500 is scheduled to go into employees’ checks next week. The city has 310 budgeted positions, but not all are filled right now, so the actual cost of the one-time payment may be a little less than $150,000, Penny said.
$1.7 million is all
City officials originally hoped that Statesboro would get as much as $5.7 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund, or CRF, grants out of $1.84 billion from the federal treasury sent to Georgia’s state government and predicted to be distributed to cities and counties.
But after Statesboro received the $1.7 million that it was allocated in the first round, the anticipated second and third rounds of grants to local governments were cancelled. Gov. Brian Kemp instead directed $1.5 billion remaining from the CRF to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to help cover extended unemployment benefits.
By a separate motion and another unanimous vote Tuesday, Statesboro City Council approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2021 city budget, which has been in effect since July 1. This amendment appropriated the $250,000 to the three assistance programs for residents and businesses, $140,000 used to purchase four new vehicles for the Statesboro Police Department and the $150,000 for the pandemic hazard pay, all from the CARES funding.
Holding at $540,000
So roughly $540,000 has now been earmarked or spent from the $1.7 million.
But the city also had some direct COVID-19 response expenses, and Penny said he plans to hold the remaining $1 million-plus unspent for the time being.
“That’s my plan because those funds will help us going into next year’s budget. …,” he said after the meeting. “We had to use a million dollars out of fund balance this year in the general fund to balance the budget, and I don’t want folks to spend that, so the CARES Act funds really will give us a little bit of a cushion, because those public safety expenses are still going to go on next year as well.”