Commission to mull county bonuses from COVID-19 money

County employees could be getting a tidy sum of money if the Claiborne Commission decides to follow through on a proposal brought by county mayor Joe Brooks. The plan is to allot a one-time bonus to every frontline worker who stayed on the job during the pandemic, up through the current time. The federal government passed the American Rescue Plan Act in March, allowing states, municipalities and counties to claim funds to help battle the effects of COVID-19 on families, businesses, nonprofits and others.

Locally, county finance officer Sue Tuttle is in the process of applying for Claiborne’s portion of the money totaling $6.2 million – half of which will be secured this year. The second $3.1 million will be realized in 2022.

Tuttle said during an interview that a portion of the money from the American Rescue Plan can be used for “essential pay” for those who worked through COVID-19.

The new $1.9 trillion legislation includes many important provisions, one of which will involve investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure which the county will likely utilize. Another investment is characterized as premium pay for essential workers, defined as those needed to maintain continuity of operations in protecting the health and wellbeing of residents.

Brooks said in an interview that county employees are considered essential to the continuation of normal governmental practices.

“The county did not shut down one day all through COVID like other surrounding counties did,” said Brooks. “I do want to make this clear that this frontline pay is not a bonus.”

Still in the rough stages, Brooks’ proposal is to give every county employee a set amount. His initial ballpark figure is $1,500 each. This is not set in stone.

Those deemed in high-risk jobs due to coming in close contact with the public would be paid an elevated bonus using a three-tier system.

Employees of the Highway and Sanitation Departments along with the Claiborne Sheriff’s Office, the Emergency Management Agency and the County Mayor’s Office would receive this “hazard” bonus depending on the length of time each employee had worked in those departments.

Tier I employees, who would be at the top of the bonus pay, would need to have been employed prior to the onset of the pandemic. Tier II employees would be considered those who were employed after March through December of 2020.

Employees hired in January 2021 and later would be considered in the Tier III category.

The caveat is, these essential workers would need to be currently employed in the same office to receive their bonuses.

Brooks said he created the Tier System to compensate those who had no choice but to be in the public every day.

“We couldn’t mitigate the potential contact with COVID-19. The rest of the county employees, we could. We continued to pay them while they worked behind the Plexiglas shields. We limited the number of people who came into the county buildings. The county handbook was revised to allow officeholders to split shifts, bringing some in to work one week and another group the next week. They still got their full pay. So, that’s why they’re not falling into the three tier system,” said Brooks.

Tuttle says the county is in the very early planning stages and that the budget will need to be reworked and county guidelines fleshed out before anything goes before the commissioners for vote. In other words, anything could change.

There is a deadline of Dec. 31 to either spend the money or make provisions for its expenditure. It is likely that each district within the county will be allotted an equal amount to be spent on those projects each commissioner deems necessary for his or her district.