This story has been clarified May 28 to distinguish between hazard pay and standby pay, and that the hazard pay is reimbursable through the federal CARES Act.
The City of Edmonds now has enough protocols in place for employee safety so that it can discontinue an emergency standby compensation program approved by the city council two months ago, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A total of 106 employees received the standby pay.
The status of a related hazard pay policy is up in the air and depends on whether the stay-at-home orders issued by the state and county continue beyond June 1, the city said.
Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson updated the council Tuesday night on both the standby and hazard pay policies, part of an emergency staffing response the council okayed at its March 24 meeting.
Under the plan, employees were placed into three separate categories, each with a different level of pay depending on their situation.
Category A was for employees who had to physically report to work for at least 20% of their regular workweek. Those employees earned a 6% pay differential, with compensation recognizing the potential hazards the employee may be exposed to (for example wastewater treatment plant workers).
Category B covered employees who could perform at least 40% of their essential job functions via telecommuting. These workers received a 3% pay differential since they had less potential hazard exposure.
Category C was for employees placed on standby leave. These workers stayed home but had to be available to the city if needed. These employees were paid at their regular wage, even while at home and not working, although they may have been asked to complete online training courses.
The hazard payments totaled $57,000 in additional costs to the city during the past two months, but are reimbursable through the federal CARES Act, the city said. Edmonds will be receiving $1.2 million through that federal legislation, aimed at providing relief to cities for COVID-19 expenses.
Neill Hoyson reminded councilmembers of the reason for the Category C standby status, which was used predominately by parks and police to work split shifts. The program allowed the city to isolate a group of employees at any one time “so we always had a shift of employees available in case we had any sort of contamination of the virus in any one of our work groups,” Neill Hoyson explained.
Speaking to the decision to discontinue the standby pay, she explained that “at this point we do have enough protocols for employee safety — putting in staggered shifts, and enough PPE (personal protective equipment) to ensure that employees who are working less than 6 feet from each other do have the equipment to be able to protect themselves.”
Councilmember Diane Buckshnis asked how the city will adjust its staffing based on the governor’s phased reopening plan.
Neill Hoyson replied that under the governor’s order, external-facing services — such as reopening of city buildings — won’t happen until Phase 3 (Edmonds and Snohomish County are currently in Phase 1). At that point, the city would have to adjust how it does business by providing face-to-face services that could require more staff, she said.
Neill Hoyson also said the city will continue to promote telecommuting among its employees as much as it can, “where appropriate,” to encourage social distancing.
Councilmember Kristiana Johnson, who was the only councilmember to vote no on the March 23 hazard and standby pay proposal, had several questions for Neill Hoyson, including whether the hazard pay covered when the employee was actually exposed to a hazardous situation or for the full 40-hour week. Neill-Hoyson replied that the employee received pay for the full week, including when he or she was working from home.
“I have a problem with that,” replied Johnson. She then went on to ask Neill Hoyson for the weekly costs for all employees’ salaries and benefits, adding:”I’m trying to determine if we’re paying people for not working.”
Neill Hoyson said she didn’t have that information but would provide it.
Johnson then made a motion to suspend the pay policy until more information was provided. Buckshnis, who had seconded the motion for the purpose of discussion, said she wouldn’t support it since the standby pay would be discontinued in less than a week anyway. The motion failed on a 1-6 vote, with Johnson the only one voting for it.
Responding to Johnson’s line of questioning, Mayor Mike Nelson said that the council’s approval of the plan in March protected “the health and safety of our employees.” In particular, Nelson said that because of the split shift quarantine measures, the city could maintain essential services. “I cannot say the same for other cities,” Nelson said, adding that one city in particular had to “shut down their entire city government” when numerous workers were exposed to the virus.
“I’m very proud of the fact that our employees were overall safe because of policies that you approved,” the mayor said.
While the standby pay will go away June 1 because the city now has safety protocols in place, the status of the hazard pay is up in the air, the city said in a statement provided to My Edmonds News. If the stay-at-home order is not lifted in Snohomish County as of June 1, the city will have to abide by the rules of hazard pay until the order is lifted, the city said.
The standby pay “is regular pay. Not hazard pay,” the city said, “similar to firefighters or others who should be prepared to come in at a moment’s notice. These people are home, but can’t leave. If someone from the “on” shift tests positive, as happened to us the first weeks of the pandemic, we had to send 16 people home to quarantine for 14 days. If we did not a have a stand by shift waiting to come in, that would mean that essential service would not get done.”
In other matters, the council removed from its agenda two items because they were unlikely to qualify as necessary under current Open Public Meeting Act rules: A review of a second option for replacing the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant incinerator and discussion of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association contract renewal.
The council also held two lengthy executive sessions — closed to the public — on matters related to current or pending litigation.
And councilmembers also approved an employee separation agreement involving City Finance Director Scott James, who is leaving the city according to a source requesting anonymity. The agreement itself was not included as part of the council agenda but it was discussed during one of the executive sessions. Following that closed session, two proposals were made in open session to change — in vague terms — aspects of the agreement language, but they were both defeated, with Councilmembers Buckshnis, Vivian Olson and Kristiana Johnson on the losing end.
— By Teresa Wippel