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County considers medical leave, hazard pay amid COVID-19

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

The Washington County Commission opted to make a temporary change to its policy in light of the COVID-19 health crisis.

At a meeting held electronically on Thursday, April 2, the commission unanimously approved an addendum to Washington County’s base personnel policy related to county employee medical leave options under the federal government’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The addendum contains federal-leave policies, employer-determined telework and authorized stay at home options and an employee-requested self-isolation option for county employees during the health crisis. 

“Much of it came out of very fluid circumstances as the county addressed what was being presented by employees and office holders and department heads,” County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson said during the county’s Employee Health and Benefits Committee meeting on Thursday, when the addendum was presented. “It’s really the intent of this addendum to reflect the circumstances that have been presented to the office holders, the department heads and employees.” 

At press time for the Herald & Tribune, Washington County Human Resources and Benefits Coordinator Michelle Stewart, who is also the appointed COVID-19 coordinator for the county, said there are six Washington County employees that have requested Emergency Paid Sick Leave as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

However, Commissioner Kent Harris said he had concerns about the policy, specifically that the policy covers two weeks-worth of medical leave at full-salary or at two-thirds pay, depending on the employee’s reason for taking leave. After the first two weeks, the employee can use his or her sick pay regularly provided by the county.

“I just want to make sure before we vote here tonight that we are voting to take care of our people and not just for two weeks and not at two-thirds pay,” Harris said. “I hope and pray none of them catch this, but they can catch this working for the people of Washington County. We sure don’t want to pass some kind of policy that will come back and hurt those people.”

Commissioner Gary McAllister, who is also the EHB Committee chairman, said he felt the addendum provided office holders “authority to do things to help our employees.” Commissioner Suzy Williams added that she felt the addendum should be accepted as-is and if adjustments were needed in the future, the commission could address that.

During the EHB Committee meeting, commissioners also discussed “hazard pay” for emergency personnel and law enforcement members who are still working during the national emergency.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen asked during the committee meeting if the county was going to consider offering “hazard pay” for employees who are still working.

“These people who can self-isolate are going to be home getting paid their full pay the entire time and I’m going to have a huge majority of our people who can’t take off at all and are at risk (of catching the virus).” Laitinen said. “I understand what we’re all dealing with, but I’ve already had employees talking about how — and I hate the term ‘it’s not fair’ when we’re dealing with a national emergency — but there’s no incentive for these employees. It concerns me. If we do it after (the health crisis) is over, it will be too late.”

Laitinen also said during the committee meeting that she was concerned she wouldn’t have enough deputies in the coming weeks due to childcare needs in light of  recent school and day-care closures.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said the county is setting up childcare for first responders. He also said he and numerous commissioners have voiced interest in considering extra compensation for those workers. He also said Wilkinson is currently reviewing the county’s options in regards to hazard pay.

“That is certainly under consideration and we are trying to work something out,” Grandy said during the committee meeting. “We would like to have the commission work on that pretty soon.”

The commission also decided to meet each week as a way to stay up to date on information as it relates to the county. The next county commission meeting will be held on Wednesday, April 8, at 6 p.m. To attend the meeting electronically, go to https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4MZUAgq8j-SvzZb_2xucpA.