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County to use COVID-relief funds to offer premium pay for some workers

by Jeff Haldiman | December 23, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

The Cole County Commission recently agreed it wanted to use some of the county's federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds for COVID-19 relief to provide premium pay (additional support) for essential workers who are at high risk of potentially becoming infected with the virus while on the job.

At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved using $1.5 million in ARP funds for premium pay. The county is expected to get more than $14.9 million in ARP money; it received more than $7.5 million of that amount in June.

Officials with BKD, the Springfield accounting firm the county hired to help advise it on ARP matters, told commissioners they could pay a maximum of $13 per hour and up to $25,000 per employee in an annual pay period.

The commission approved two premium levels for full-time workers -- $200 per two-week pay period and $100 per two-week pay period. Department heads are eligible for the funds, but not elected officials. The difference in the pay level would be determined by what type of exposure the employee has in his or her interaction with the public.

Under the policy adopted, people working from home are not eligible for the premium pay because they are not being exposed to the virus at work. County officials said the premium pay program was intended to enhance pay of those who have work-related exposure.

Initially the commission was going to limit the pay to full-time workers, but officials such as Sheriff John Wheeler and Cole County EMS Chief Eric Hoy said part-time employees should be able to get some of the money.

"I have part-time people coming in on a regular basis, and they're being exposed just like everybody else who is working," Wheeler said. "I have part-time people working in the jail, on the road and in our civil service."

"I could have a part-time person work one shift in a month, but in that shift they worked with three people with confirmed COVID-19," Hoy said. "My part-time people have the potential to be exposed every time they come into contact with an infected person."

Hoy said they have 13 part-time staff and 63 full-time. The full-time number includes nine dispatchers, two deputy chiefs and an administrative assistant.

Wheeler said out of 115 authorized positions, he has 11 part-time staff. As of Tuesday, he's down 15 positions in the entire department.

Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said part-time staff in the county collector's office who are helping collect tax bills might also be eligible for the funds. He also noted the county would have part-time people working during next year's elections.

"I'm not trying to be difficult, but I can't survive without my part-timers," Wheeler said.

Eventually, the commission agreed to make part-time employees eligible for premium pay, but exactly how the part-timers would be compensated is still being worked out.

On a related matter, commissioners said seven members of an advisory panel will guide them on how to use COVID-19 relief funds. The seven members will be chosen from a group of 15 people who either applied on the county's website or who had been nominated for consideration.

The ARP funds can be used to: decrease the spread of COVID-19, replace lost revenue, support economic stabilization for households and businesses, and address public health and economic challenges that "have contributed to the unequal impact of the pandemic."

The funds could also be used for investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, which is something the commission has been considering. The commissioners have also discussed using the funds to address stormwater infrastructure issues.

The county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to obligate the funds to specific purposes and to spend the funds by Dec. 31, 2026.

Print Headline: County to use COVID relief to offer premium pay for some staff

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