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County opts to pay front line employee insurance premiums during health crisis

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

The county is prepared to offer its employees on the frontline during the recent COVID-19 crisis a bit of “immediate” compensation. 

During the Washington County Commission’s Wednesday, April 8 meeting, commissioners unanimously opted to pay health insurance premiums through June 30 for county employees who are identified as frontline workers. The motion also included that the county will offer funds matching the cost of a county employee’s insurance premium for those employees not enrolled on the insurance plan.

“This is a component that can be implemented immediately,” Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy told the commission. “It doesn’t preclude us from doing something else in a more significant or different way (for front line employees) in the future.”

Washington County Human Resources and Benefits Coordinator Michelle Stewart said Augusta, Georgia implemented a similar plan that compensated frontline workers who continue to work in their job areas to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. She said those workers in Washington County would include Sheriff patrol officers that are platoon deputy officers, detention officers, solid waste convenience center employees, emergency management agency personnel, courthouse janitors, two zoning employees, the building inspector and the environmental court inspector.

Stewart also said the plan will cost $25,000 a month and could come from the county’s health insurance plan fund.

“We have a very large fund balance that we have been fortunate to grow,” Stewart, who presented the plan to the commission, said. “We are looking at returning $500,000 this plan year to the fund balance. (The plan) would be an easy way to fund an immediate appreciation for those that are in harm’s way. There’d be a need to find additional money because in the health insurance plan fund, we do have reserves aside and we’re looking at a pretty good return this year.”

Commissioner Kent Harris, who made the motion for the plan, said he felt it was a good idea that also reflected the stewardship of the county.

“It sounds like an excellent plan to do some immediate work,” Harris said. “I think this goes back to reflect what we’ve done to save money in all of our insurance accounts. I applaud (Stewart) and everyone who has worked so hard to save this money that we have available that’s not going to cost any extra burden on the taxpayers, but also show an appreciation for our employees.” 

After hearing an update on what the county’s EMS, EMA and health department have been doing to combat the virus, Commissioner Jodi Jones said she was concerned for the mental health of workers who are facing and could be facing an emotionally taxing work environment.

“I do have a concern for first responders and providers who will be first-hand experiencing perhaps a high volume of patients and making very uncomfortable decisions about resource allocation and witnessing some really difficult situations possibly,” Jones said. “So if there is a need to develop a mental health resource for first responders and medical providers, I’d be happy to do that with any of the three (departments).

Washington County EMA Director Rusty Sells said he has talked with Frontier Health and they said they are “ready for a surge” in the need for mental health services for first responders due to the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile Washington County Health Director Christen Minnick said she has designated a local safety officer within her building to check in on the other health department employees to make sure they’re doing alright. 

Director Dan Wheeley added that his department, like EMA and the health department, is ready to work through the COVID-19 crisis which can be a stressful time for employees.

“EMS is working hard,” Wheeley said. “There’s a lot of anxiety but they’re working through that. They’re really doing all that we ask them to do. I can’t say how proud I am of them.”